July 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part V

Hello again and welcome back to the latest, fifth, part in the long history of the guitar, abridged and serialised for your entertainment. After the lengthy but hopefully coherent, tome of last month, I promise this one is a bit shorter and focused back on whole guitars, for easier consumption.

If you wish to recap on previous articles before starting with this part, the previous articles making up the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

The previous article (Part IV) in the series covering the guitar’s evolution looked at some essential 20th Century technological innovations without which, the electric guitar and modern music would not have evolved within the context of our current civilisation.

The artificial increase in volume provided by the pickup, amplifier and loudspeaker was important to enable the guitar to be elevated from just an accompanying instrument to a lead/solo instrument. This significant expansion in functionality proved massively popular across most non-classical musical genres and would change popular music forever. Crucially, the electric guitar provided a springboard for the musical revolution that occurred from the 1950s, fuelled first by jazz and blues and then by country and the rock ‘n’ roll ‘explosion’. At the same time, post‑war economic growth and social liberalisation in most western societies provided a fertile environment within which the electric guitar and the music it influenced could flourish. Part V explores how those key innovations were first introduced to the guitar world and then became an integral part of what would eventually become today’s musical landscape.

There were considerable challenges in turning prototypes into successful working commercial products. One of the barriers was the capability to manufacture the various elements to consistent quality in large numbers at low enough cost to match supply with demand. Another potential inhibitor was to persuade exiting dealerships and traditional musicians to adopt the new technology. One strategy was to attract big name artists to not only endorse but also to be seen using them in live performance. All of these factors were important in helping to build and then sustain long‑tem interest.

Scientific and technological progress in the first half of the 20th Century, it seems, was inevitable and unstoppable. Guitar builders were taking massive leaps of faith and the risks were great. If the new‑fangled popular music turned out to be a temporary fad or the features offered didn’t catch the consumer’s imagination then all the investment in time, effort and money would be wasted. Manufacturers had to get their products ‘just so’ in a timely fashion, so there was pressure to adapt, get the balance right and to do so within a relatively short space of time.

In hindsight, the answers to these challenges seem relatively straightforward, although it may not have seemed so at the time. As mentioned briefly in the previous part of the story there were essentially two ways to migrate from an acoustic instrument to an amplified electric one…

The first method was, perhaps, an obvious incremental approach achieved by simply adding one of the new‑fangled pickups to an existing hollow‑body acoustic instrument. The modified acoustic guitar could then simply be connected to a portable valve amplifier and speaker. This would be an attractive approach for many well‑established jazz/dance band musicians. However, the potential of this solution – at least initially – was limited by fact that that all that was happening was simply electrifying acoustic guitars. Not surprisingly, it worked for companies already producing credible archtop acoustic guitars, including, for example, Gibson.

The second method was to take a more radical approach and invent an entirely new type of instrument designed from scratch. This was technically far more difficult at the time and carried no guarantee of success. However, a bespoke approach was seen as less of a compromise and more a means of going straight to a visionary objective in one step, as well as doing so quickly without being constrained by anything that had gone before. The forward‑looking pioneers in this field believed that a purpose‑built electric guitar would appeal to a completely different audience and were prepared to take the massive risk of alienating the current generation of risk‑averse musicians in order to grow a fresh following for the new generation of guitars from a low base.

Arguably, both ways were important and both were needed in order to refine the inventions and for the best of both worlds to converge. Without these pioneering efforts, we would not have the diverse range of electric guitars (and other instruments) we have today. The following sections take a brief look at what happened to each of these seemingly opposing strategies and how successful they really were.

Generally speaking, the development of acoustic guitars had taken different courses on the eastern and western sides of the United States, so perhaps it was not surprising that the developments leading to the electric guitar also followed a rough east/west geographical split. In addition, the routes taken to get to the nirvana of the electric guitar were fundamentally different. While there were many inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs working on similar projects, this part of the story focuses on two key enterprises based in Michigan and California during the 1930s. The pace of innovation that occurred in the wake of WWII, through the late 1940s and into the 1950s will be the focus of the next part of the series.

Amplified Archtop Guitars

On the eastern(‑ish, actually the mid-west) side of America, Gibson being Gibson, felt that they were in control of their own destiny. They were intent on doing things their way and in their own time. Although Gibson was no stranger to innovation, perhaps predictably, they chose the ‘safe’ option, which was to add an electromagnetic pickup to their successful range of existing archtop guitars and then take it from there. This was seen as a simple, effective and relatively painless way of making the transition for an existing largely conservative and loyal user base to the new platform. Professional musicians, perhaps conscious of retaining their reputation and credibility could keep the look, feel and timbre of their existing instruments and just plug them into an amplifier to make them louder. While the approach was successful, as we now appreciate, the seemingly straightforward act of electrifying an acoustic instrument isn’t always ideal. Many initially sceptical professional musicians were, however, persuaded to embrace incremental change. They could retain their trusty, mostly expensive, high quality acoustic archtop guitars and also keep their expectant audiences happy.

While their upstart competitors on the west coast may have beaten Gibson to the starting gate technologically (see below), the Hawaiian lap steel market was finite and Gibson was intent on occupying what they saw as their rightful territory in the centre ground. Gibson founder, Orville Gibson had passed away in 1918, long before Gibson electric guitars became a reality. One wonders what Orville would have thought and, perhaps more intriguingly, done if faced with the same set of circumstances.

While acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar was employed at Gibson, he had experimented with electrostatic pickups in the early 1920s, although not very successfully. It would, however, take Gibson another 10 years to make their breakthrough. It fell to Gibson employee, Walter L. Fuller, who had joined the company in 1933 who was responsible for finalising the design of Gibson’s first pickups used on their electric metal‑bodied E150 lap steel guitars, introduced in 1935. The electric E150 was, like the early Rickenbacher Electro lap steel guitars, constructed from sold aluminium. To help entice early adopters, the E150 was offered with a matching E150 amp.

A year later, in May 1936, Gibson introduced their first ‘Electric Spanish’ (ES) model, the hollow body archtop ES‑150. While some may dispute the circumstances, the Gibson ES‑150 is historically significant in that it is generally regarded as the first commercially successful production electric guitar. The Gibson ES‑150 employed the same pickup as used in the previous year’s E150 lap steel. Two large 5” bar magnets were hidden under the top of the guitar, as can be seen by the triangle of mounting bolts, while the hexagonal pickup with its distinctive ‘blade’ polepiece was visible, mounted near the neck. The output jack socket was positioned unobtrusively on the side of the guitar’s lower bass bout. Otherwise, the ES‑150 was a relatively unremarkable example of familiar archtop jazz guitar design of the 1930s. Interestingly, the ES‑150 wasn’t a replacement for another Gibson model; it was a new introduction, supplementing existing instruments.

Like the E150, the ES-150 was sold with an accompanying EH‑150 amplifier and cable. The ‘150’ of its name derived from the guitar’s introductory price of $150.

Importantly for Gibson, the ES‑150 was endorsed by acclaimed jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-1942), which helped to popularise amplified archtop guitars not only for rhythm work but also for lead/solo playing. The distinctive black and white hexagonal pickup used in the ES-150 is still known today as the ‘Charlie Christian’ pickup and is held in high regard by aficionados, despite being very low‑powered in its original form. After 1938, Gibson redesigned the pickup so that it was more powerful – it had a notch in the polepiece below where the wound ‘B’ string would go, in order to balance the output across all 6 strings. A third variation of the pickup appeared on Gibson ES-250s from 1939, perhaps indicating that development of the pickup was ‘work‑in‑progress’.

By the end of the 1930s, Gibson’s Walter Fuller was experimenting with Alnico (aluminium, nickel and cobalt) alloy magnets in pickups. Various guitars of the early 1940s featured early versions of what would become one of Gibson’s most famous pickups, the P90. These developmental designs, used on Gibson ES-250 and ES-300 guitars, were a far cry from the familiar P90 pickups that would follow. Another early version of the P90, called the P-13, appeared on Mastertone Electric Spanish Guitars from 1940, a budget brand owned by Gibson.

Between 1943 and 1945, a substantial proportion of Gibson’s manufacturing capacity was re‑focused on supporting the American war effort. Supply of materials and tooling caused a temporary hiatus in America’s pickup, guitar and amplifier development, not only for Gibson but also for all manufacturers in the industry.

It wasn’t until 1946 that Gibson introduced the fully‑fledged single coil P.U.90, now known simply as the P90, on their ES-150 and ES-300 archtops. The P90 has become one of the company’s most famous and highly respected pickups, and a design that has endured almost unchanged over many decades. The P90 pickup was important to Gibson as it really established Gibson’s dominance in pickup design prior to the introduction of humbucking pickups. The successful P90 became a standard and effectively replaced Gibson’s earlier pickup designs. Although Gibson’s humbucking pickups were intended to replace the P90 in the 1950s, the P90 remains in production today as Gibson’s predominant single coil pickup, testament to the quality of its original design.

Once the concept of electric archtop guitars had been broadly embraced by enough mainstream guitarists, Gibson extended the use of pickups to other guitars. In 1949, Gibson released the ES-175. Like the ES‑150 before it, the model was named after its introductory price of $175. This model was important in the historical timeline because it was designed from the start to be an electric guitar, rather than an acoustic guitar with a pickup. It was also considered a cheaper guitar than Gibson’s upmarket archtops like the acoustic L5 and Super 400. Unlike its predecessors, the ES-175’s all‑hollow body was constructed from laminated boards rather than solid wood and it was the first Gibson to feature a pointed Florentine cutaway. Initially, the ES-175 came with one and then two P90 single coil pickups. By 1957, Gibson switched to their new humbucking pickups to the E‑175.

Following on from the ground breaking ES-150 and the ES-175, Gibson revisited an earlier classic creation by introducing the luxuriously appointed L5CES in 1951. The new model was based on the preceding L5 originally designed by Lloyd Loar in the 1920s. The L5CES was aimed squarely at the high end and was designed to provide the best of both worlds for discerning professional musicians. The ‘C’ stood for the single ‘cutaway’ body comprising spruce top and maple back and sides. The model was produced initially with a smoothly rounded Venetian cutaway and a pair of P90 single coil pickups, followed later by a sharply pointed Florentine cutaway and humbucking pickups. The ‘ES’ continued the ‘Electric Spanish’ nomenclature of other models. By using 2 pickups, the L5CES was intended to be used both acoustically and electrically. A notable user of the electric L5 was Scotty Moore who worked with emerging rock ‘n’ roll singer, Elvis Presley in the 1950s. There were a number of variations on the theme, including the thinline, short scale Byrdland and in the 1970s, Gibson even introduced a solid body version of the L5, called the L5S.

In 1955, Gibson introduced their first production humbucking pickup, designed by Seth Lover. Early versions of the Gibson P.U.490 humbucker have become known as PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups, while ones produced after their patent was awarded in 1959 are known as ‘Patent No.’ pickups. Succeeding versions of the Gibson humbucker right up to the current day have built on the foundations of these early, now legendary, pickups. As they had done in the 1930s, Gibson launched their new pickup first on lap steel guitars in 1956 before phasing them in to replace P90s on the aforementioned ES‑175.

It wasn’t long before PAF humbuckers were used on many Gibson guitars. Unsurprisingly, they also began to appear in the company’s (relatively) new solid body gold top Les Paul Model and black Les Paul Custom guitars from 1957 as well as on the all‑new semi‑acoustic ES‑335 from 1958. However, that’s getting ahead of this particular part of the story. Fortunately for Gibson, their humbucking pickups proved highly successful across all types of electric guitar and have long since become an industry standard, with many 3rd party pickup suppliers creating their own versions. Even the original Charlie Christian pickups are now being replicated for enthusiasts of the unique sound they produced.

There have, perhaps obviously, been plenty of other electric archtop guitars over the intervening years from a wide range of manufacturers across the globe. While this part of the story recognises this diversity, it cannot do justice to the proliferation of instruments on the market today. Needless to say, many of today’s designs have been inspired by the few milestone instruments mentioned here. Arguably, progress would have taken place anyway, even without these key instruments. However, the guitars covered above are particularly notable in historical terms not necessarily because they were the first or the best but because of the part they have played in the overall heritage.

Again in hindsight, the addition of one or more pickups to an existing acoustic guitar may seem to be an obvious option. However, at the time, it was a significant development by a company that was known for combining innovation with traditionalism. It was a strategic decision by Gibson that achieved that clever balancing act, innovating while preserving their reputation and sustaining their user base during a time of major industry and social change.

When the time came to introduce their own range of solid body guitars in the early 1950s, Gibson already had plenty of experience under their belt to make informed decisions about what would and what wouldn’t work. It is not surprising that other manufacturers followed suit and the electric archtop guitars became mainstream until the 1950s.

The electric archtop guitar proved extremely popular with traditional guitarists looking to continue using archtop jazz guitars while also enjoying the benefits of greater volume provided by amplification. After a commercial nadir in the late 20th Century, archtop electric designs have also proved exceedingly dependable and many models remain popular to the current day, and will probably now endure well into the instrument’s future.

 

The Early Solid Body Electric Guitar

Possibly the main individual associated with the rather awkward birth of the electric solid body guitar was Adolph Rickenbacher (1886‑1976). Shortly after he was born in Basel, Switzerland, Richenbacher emigrated to America in 1891 with relatives following the death of his parents. After settling initially in Wisconsin, Adolph moved to California in 1918. In 1925, he set up the Rickenbacher Manufacturing Company, a tool and die business manufacturing metal and plastic products in Los Angeles.

To begin with, Rickenbacher spelled his family surname with an ‘h’, rather than the ‘k’ we are familiar with today. Rickenbacher later changed his surname, partly to ‘Anglicise’ it and partly to capitalise on the fame of his cousin and WWI flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

Alongside Rickenbacher, the other key person was none other than George Beauchamp, the Texan Vaudeville entertainer and inventor who had already played such a major part in the development of resonator acoustic guitars with the National String Instrument Corporation in the 1920s. In addition to pioneering resonator guitars (see Part III), Beauchamp had been experimenting with pickups and amplified instruments since the mid‑1920s but with little success (see Part IV).

Perhaps ironically, during the late 1920s, Rickenbacher’s company was manufacturing metal resonator guitar bodies for National, so perhaps it is not surprising that Beauchamp and Rickenbacher’s paths should cross. Rickenbacher was even a shareholder in National. According to some commentators, it was Beauchamp’s involvement with Rickenbacher that possibly precipitated the former’s ultimate departure from the newly merged National Dobro Corporation in around 1934.

Beauchamp’s quest for greater guitar volume had led him to explore the idea of using an electromagnetic pickup to create a signal and an amplifier to produce volume. Like many before him, Beauchamp was driven to prove the concept in a practical way and he was largely successful. Beauchamp had started designing pickups and ideas for an electric guitar while still at National and in collaboration with another National employee, Paul Barth. Beauchamp and Barth’s first successful pickup design comprised a pair of U‑shaped magnets arranged in a ‘horseshoe’ shape that housed the pickup’s wire coil and surrounded the guitar’s strings.

In October 1931, Rickenbacher, Beauchamp, Barth and a number of others became business partners and founded the Ro‑Pat‑In Corporation (short for Electro‑Patent‑Instruments), based in Los Angeles. Ro‑Pat‑In’s stated goal was to produce fully electric musical instruments. Their prototype Hawaiian electric guitar from c.1931 exhibited many of the features of the eventual production model, although it was mainly constructed from wood. This was not an acoustic guitar in any shape or form, so it had to function as an electric instrument from the outset.

Ro‑Pat‑In became the first company to design and manufacture a production solid bodied electric guitar in 1932, way before Gibson. Finally, albeit in embryonic form, the fully electric guitar had finally arrived. These early guitars were, perhaps unkindly, nicknamed ‘frying pans’ because of their distinctive shape, comprising small circular bodies, long necks and all-metal construction. The guitar comprised a circular cast aluminium body and neck and incorporated the all‑important ‘horseshoe’ pickup and a volume control.

Wisely, Ro-Pat-In changed its unwieldy name to Electro String Instrument Corporation in 1933. Confusingly, early instruments appeared with the ‘Electro’ (and even ‘Elektro’) name. Even more confusingly, the company used the Rickenbacher spelling inconsistently until it finally became Rickenbacker from around 1950.

Following the name change, the ‘frying pan’ became the Rickenbacher Electro A-22. The profile of the instrument was heightened by steel guitarist Jack Miller who played a ‘Frying Pan’ with Orville Knapp (1904-1936) and his orchestra from 1934. Although he was little‑known at the time, Miller may possibly be able to lay claim to being one of the first artists to popularise the electric guitar.

As previously covered in Part IV of the story, Beauchamp’s 1934 patent application for an ‘electrical stringed musical instrument’ incorporating an electromagnetic pickup was finally awarded in April 1937. The intervening 3‑year period allowed enterprising competitors to take advantage of the new technology and create their own versions. Rickenbacher made a conscious decision not to defend their patent in the courts, thereby effectively opening up the market to competition.

Aluminium often caused tuning problems under demanding stage conditions, so Rickenbacher also experimented with other materials, including plastic and wood. From 1935, Electro released the influential Model B Hawaiian lap steel guitar. The Model B was notable for being made from cast Bakelite, a form of synthetic plastic invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland (1863-1944) in New York. Model B guitars were originally produced with a single volume control and five decorative chrome panels before models from the late 1930s featured volume and tone controls with white enamelled panels.

Richenbacher and Beauchamp recognised that the market for lap steel guitars was relatively small and there were other opportunities to be exploited. From 1932, Rickenbacker also went on to design more traditional ‘Electro Spanish’ guitars with conventionally‑shaped acoustic wood bodies, f‑holes, a slotted headstock and neck to body join at the 14th fret. By 1935, guitarist and early endorsee Ken Roberts was honoured with a ‘signature’ model that had a neck to body join at the 17th fret, featured a vibrato tailpeice and was the first electric Spanish‑style guitar to have a 25½” scale neck.

Like the ‘frying pans’ before them, both the Model B and the Electro Spanish guitars used the distinctive ‘horseshoe’ pickup. In addition to guitars, Rickenbacher Electro used their expertise to develop other electric instruments including mandolins, violins, cellos and even a harp. To accompany their electric guitars and to make them usable, Rickenbacher Electro also produced guitar amplifiers.

Timing of these guitar developments wasn’t ideal and market conditions were challenging for Rickenbacher. Electro String’s instruments appeared shortly after the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, an event that initiated the Great Depression, a major worldwide downturn that persisted until the late 1930s. Coincidentally, during the 1930s, global political tensions started to increase culminating in the outbreak of WWII. Most of America’s industrial concerns were focused on supporting the war effort for several years and the ensuing recovery was slow. The impact on the uptake of electric guitars during depression‑era America was significant, particularly in rural areas. Despite the difficulties, Electro String Instrument Corporation persevered and had produced over 2,500 ‘frying pans’ by the time the company stopped making them in 1939.

After all his vision, ambition, creativity and drive, George Beauchamp became disillusioned with the direction in which things were moving and he left Rickenbacker in 1940 to follow other pursuits, including his passion for deep sea fishing. Beauchamp died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip near Los Angeles in 1941 at the age of just 42. Beauchamp was largely unrecognised at the time for his many significant contributions to guitar evolution.

Following Beauchamp’s departure, Rickenbacker continued making musical instruments until 1953 when he sold the company to Californian businessman Francis Cary Hall. After the sale, the Rickenbacker company embarked on a whole new era of guitar building and commercial success under Hall’s leadership. Adolph Rickenbacker died in 1976 as a result of cancer in California at the age of 89. The company he founded in 1931 continues to thrive and still bears his name (complete with its ‘k’) today as the Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC).

End of Part V

This moment seems like another ideal stopping point, albeit covering a fairly short period of intense guitar evolution in the 1930s. Together, Gibson’s and Rickenbacker’s milestone innovations had bridged that all‑important gap between the guitar’s acoustic history and the introduction of commercially produced modern solid body electric guitars in the 1950s. From this watershed point on, nothing in the music world would ever be quite the same again.

It is the emergence of the modern electric guitar, and particularly the now‑familiar solid‑body guitar, as we know it that will be picked up in Part VI. The fascinating battle between industry stalwart Gibson and new‑kid‑on‑the‑block Fender was about to take place. Fender and Gibson started fighting for market supremacy in the 1950s and are still doing so today.

I hope you enjoyed this part of the guitar’s story and trust that you’ll come back for the next exciting instalment – same time, same channel, next month (hopefully!). Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Failure may not be an option but the risk of failure is something that most of us have to work damn hard to avoid at all costs.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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June 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part IV

Without further ado, let’s get stuck into Part IV of the history of the guitar. As the story was left at the end of the last article during the 1920s and early 1930s, something new was needed to ensure that guitars would not only be able to compete with other instruments in a live situation but also become the catalyst for a musical revolution to mirror what was taking place in wider society. Just in case you were lulled into a sense of coherent continuity, this month’s article is a bit different from what has been covered so far.

This part is presented as part of a whole. If you wish to recap on previous articles in the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, you can access them here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

Please remember that this is written purely for entertainment purposes and is not intended as an academic tome. While I have tried to be diligent in my research, there are undoubtedly improvements that could be made, so corrections and clarifications are genuinely welcomed. This is quite a long article, so I hope you are sitting comfortably.

Needing to be heard

The problem for guitarists in the 1920s was a simple but fundamental and frustrating one. The amount of volume that could be attained from purely acoustic guitar designs had got as far as it was likely to get at the start of the 1930s. Guitarists were still struggling to be heard in noisy live music environments as part of jazz, swing, big band and dance orchestras. Despite the strengths of steel strung folk guitars, archtop guitars and resonator guitars, the lack of volume continued to be a problem for guitarists throughout the early part of the 20th Century. A number of clever innovations attempted to help acoustic guitarists cut through the mix but they didn’t really capture mainstream attention and passed into obscurity, leaving demanding musicians still yearning for louder instruments.

Creative inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs were determined to find a workable solution. Perhaps the biggest game‑changing watershed in the entire history of guitar building was about to take place in America in the 1930s. The transformation depended on coincidental and mutually dependent developments; the magnetic pickup, the portable valve amplifier and its associated loudspeaker(s). Undoubtedly, the amplifier came first, simply because it could be driven by other inputs, such as early microphones, while the pickup followed to take advantage of the opportunity. Logic suggests that the converse would make little sense, as a pickup without some means of manipulating the signal s essentially redundant.

By the end of the 19th Century, early microphones were being used in telephone, broadcasting and recording industries. In 1916, the first condenser microphone was invented and in 1923, the first moving coil and ribbon microphones were developed. Given the timing, it seemed logical to experiment with microphones to capture the sound from acoustic guitars. However, the results weren’t particularly successful and the microphone proved to be a dead end for guitarists at the time. A more practical and reliable alternative was required to capture the physical energy produced by a stringed instrument and convert it into a usable electrical signal that could then be amplified and output.

Before starting to look at the early electric instruments that changed modern guitar music forever, it is worth taking a temporary detour to look at the catalysts that led to the step change. Once the technical inhibitors had been overcome and the various elements combined, electric guitars became a realistic and achievable proposition.

The electro magnetic guitar pickup

By the 1920s and 1930s, the science of using magnetism and wire coils to induce an electric current had been understood for several decades. It would, however, take some ingenuity to apply the various scientific principles involved to overcome the specific practical problems experienced by guitarists of the time. Within this context, we need to go right back to basics as a starting point.

An electromagnetic guitar pickup is basically a passive transducer that uses Faraday’s law of induction, named after English scientist Michael Faraday (1791‑1867), to produce an electromagnetic force. The physical movement of the vibrating steel string of a strummed or plucked guitar disturbs the magnetic field and induces a small voltage of between 100mV and 1V through the coil. This differs from a simple microphone, which works by converting pressure variations in the air (sound waves), into the mechanical motion of a diaphragm, which in turn produces an electrical signal (depending on the type of technology used).

A simple electromagnetic guitar pickup is generally constructed from one or more permanent magnets, wrapped many thousands of times in a coil made of fine copper wire. Most early guitar pickups comprised only one magnet and coil, hereafter referred to as single coil pickups. The weak electrical signal is then passed down an electrical lead to a separate amplifier where the signal is multiplied many times to drive a passive loudspeaker that reproduces the original signal at greater volume.

Unlike a microphone, the electromagnetic pickup does not reproduce the actual acoustic sound waves emanating from the guitar. The natural resonance of the instrument may cause the strings to vibrate in a certain way and this variation is picked up by the transducer, which may explain the differences in sound between two instruments using the same pickup, electrics, amplifier and speakers. As a result, at least in the early days, the characteristics of the pickup combined with the rest of the signal chain probably had more to do with the sound that audiences heard, rather than that of the actual instrument itself. There are innumerable permutations in which the basic components of magnets and wire can be configured to produce different outputs and over the years, pickup designers have used these variations to differentiate their pickups from those produced by others.

Gibson employee, Lloyd Loar had experimented with stringed instrument pickups as early as 1924, shortly before he left the company. Loar attempted to produce an electrical signal from vibrations passed from the strings through the bridge to the magnet and coil. Loar’s work did not lead to a successful product and guitarists had to wait a while longer.

American inventor and musician, George Beauchamp, who had been involved with the National String Instrument Corporation and the development of their resonator guitars, was also involved with another resourceful enterprise at the beginning of the 1930s. He teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacher to form the company was originally called Ro Pat In Corporation, which later became Electro String Instrument Corporation and later still, Rickenbacker, a name that most guitarists will recognise. Ro-Pat-In was instrumental in taking a fundamental new approach to electric guitar design.

Through Electro String, Beauchamp filed a patent in June 1934 setting out his pickup design as part of a complete ‘Electrical Stringed Musical Instrument’. Beauchamp’s ‘horsehoe’ pickup design comprised two ‘U’‑shaped magnets encircling the strings. Beauchamp’s application was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in August 1937. The patent was important because it was for a solid body electric guitar using a magnetic pickup, not just the pickup on its own – the development of the instrument will be covered in the next part of the story so, for now, the focus is solely on the pickup.

Ironically, in February 1936, Guy Hart filed a patent on behalf of Gibson for an ‘Electric Musical Instrument’ and this was awarded by the Patent office in July 1937, just 28 days before Beauchamp’s earlier patent application was confirmed.

Although unknown at the time, another single coil guitar pickup patent was filed in September 1944 by American inventor and entrepreneur Leo Fender. That application was for a ‘pickup unit for instruments’, which was awarded in December 1948. Although not as historically significant as other pickup patents, it was a clear indication of the direction that Leo Fender was heading prior to founding the company that would bear his name.

Another important principle of basic physics caused a significant problem for early pickup designers, and it still does even today. In addition to the desirable characteristic of electrical induction for guitar pickups, electromagnetic coils also act as directional antennae. As far as musical instruments go, this unwanted ‘feature’ means that single coil pickups not only pick up string vibrations but they also pick up interference from alternating mains current used by electrical appliances. Depending on position of the pickup in relation to other electrical equipment, of which there are usually many in a live music venue, the interference manifests itself as a continuous and insistent hum, which is then in turn amplified by a guitar amplifier.

One ingenious solution to the problem of mains‑induced hum was to invent a guitar pickup that still produced a signal from string vibrations while eradicating the interference from nearby electrical equipment. The clever answer was the invention of the ‘humbucking’ pickup, which uses two magnets, each with a coil of wire wound in opposite directions. Electrically induced mains interference affects both coils equally and, because each one is wound in opposing directions, the interference is cancelled out, thereby eradicating (or ‘bucking’) the hum. More importantly, not only do the coils still induce a voltage, they output a stronger signal because there are two coils instead of one. As the problem is all but removed at source, there is no hum to be amplified.

Arguments persist as to who invented the humbucking guitar pickup. Many commentators give the accolade to Seth Lover (1910‑1997), who was an electronics designer working for Gibson at the time and filed a patent in June 1955. Lover’s closest competitor in the race to be recognised for the humbucking pickup came from Joseph Butts, who later worked for Gretsch. Butts filed another humbucking pickup patent some 18 months later in January 1957. It was Butts’ application that was awarded first in June 1959, while Lover’s patent was awarded in July 1959. As far as many working musicians were concerned, the invention was successful and that was all that mattered.

Generally speaking (but not always, especially if obscured by a cover), it is relatively easy to spot the difference between slim single coil pickups and their larger dual‑coil humbucking counterparts. The latter normally have two coil bobbins traditionally mounted side‑by‑side. Within these two broad types, there are many, many different makes and styles of pickup to suit most needs.

Hum is not the only affliction that electric guitar builders have to deal with. All electromagnetic pickups, even those produced today, are prone to audio feedback, which is often heard as an undesirable high pitched shriek or howl. Feedback is a phenomenon called the Larsen Effect after the Danish scientist Søren Absalon Larsen (1871-1957) who discovered it. Audio feedback is caused by a sound loop that exists between an audio input such as a pickup or microphone and an audio output such as an loudspeaker fed by an amplifier. The electrical signal from the input is amplified through a loudspeaker and is then picked up again by the input and so on, continuously. The sound of the feedback is shaped by the resonant frequencies and proximity of the various components in the loop, including room acoustics. Most of the time, feedback is considered problematic and often unpredictable. However many guitarists have learned to harness and control feedback in a positive musical way to create additional sounds.

Some contemporary pickup manufacturers go to great lengths to replicate the authentic tonal characteristics of vintage pickups. One of those widely imitated pickups is also probably the most famous of humbucking pickups. Used on Gibson guitars from the late 1950s, the PAF (Patent Applied For), named after the black sticker on the baseplate, has come to define Gibson’s sound for many guitarists. The PAFs are particularly revered, as they were used in sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standards from 1958‑1960, often regarded as the ‘golden years’ for Gibson.

Today, many independent pickup builders not only pay homage to vintage designs but also strive to create their own distinctive reputation. Third party pickup builders may make OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and aftermarket pickups in a huge range of types. Such companies include Seymour Duncan, Di Marzio, EMG, Lollar and Bare Knuckle, among many others. Pickup choice in the 21st Century is very much down to personal preference and the options are nigh on infinite – very different from the 1930s.

The sounds generated by single coil and humbucking pickups are noticeably different. Not only do single coil pickups tend to produce a weaker signal, they sound thinner and cleaner, while more powerful humbucking pickups tend to sound fatter and warmer. Guitarists noticed this variation and took advantage of the differences to shape their own playing style and develop their distinctive tone. In addition, humbuckers are often considered better suited to overdriving pre‑amplifiers, thereby adding some controllable, distinctive and desirable harmonic distortion, making them popular in higher gain rock music.

By the 1950s manufacturers were commonly using two or more pickups on a guitar for added tonal versatility, initially adding a second or third pickup of the same type, for instance commonly used configurations include 2 humbuckers (e.g. Gibson Les Paul) or 3 single coils (e.g. Fender Stratocaster). Many guitar makers today mix different types of pickups on one guitar to broaden the range of sounds available.

Some pickup arrangements also allow pickups to be engaged in series or parallel or in/out of phase to give musicians a greater number of tonal options. Since the 1970s, pickup designers have enabled the signal from the two coils of a humbucking pickup to be ‘split’ (NB. not ‘tapped’). By using a switch, guitarists may enable a split humbucker to sound either like a traditional humbucker or to emulate the distinctive sound of a single coil pickup. All these various techniques provide guitarists with greater flexibility from their pickup(s).

Simplistically, guitar pickups may also be described either as passive or active. Passive pickups are the basic devices that have been described so far, while active pickups incorporate some form of electronic circuitry in the guitar to modify the signal, normally powered by an on‑board battery. Outwardly, there is often little to distinguish whether pickups are active or not. Putting active electronics into a guitar has been around since at least the 1960s and can range from a simple pre‑amp to boost the pickup signal to elaborate on‑board effects or even low powered amplification.

Since its inception 1930s, the humble guitar pickup has been adapted into many diverse forms. The majority of pickups in the early 21st Century remain passive single coil or humbucking types. However, there have been other pickup innovations along the way diverging from the norm. These alternative technologies include, amongst many other pickup types; hexaphonic (that feed individual string signals to MIDI/synthesizer controllers), piezoelectric (using crystals to induce current), microphonic (converting sound wave vibrations to electricity), electrostatic (using a capacitor to vary electrical capacitance), optical (interrupting a beam of light detected by a sensor), etc.

The understanding of the science behind pickup materials and dynamics between the components has been improved and refined significantly since the 1930s. However, the basic principles behind the passive transducing electromagnetic pickup remain pertinent today and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Magnetic pickups are, by far, the most common type used by electric guitars in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. This may be about to change.

With the digital revolution, there are numerous innovations occurring today that will lead to radical new pickup designs in the future. Future musicians can expect many new ways of converting the vibrations from humble plucked guitar strings into electrical signals that can be manipulated in ways we cannot yet contemplate. The possibly unstoppable migration from analogue to digital technology will continue. We can only speculate as to how far digital processes will encroach into the hitherto staunchly analogue domain of the guitar. Already, we have seen digital devices that enable the output from a guitar’ pickup to ‘model’ other types of guitar and even other instruments by modifying the signal digitally. We have also seen guitars as being a source trigger for external synthesis and various guitar synths have been around since the 1970s. It seems somewhat ironic that the digital age is enabling ever more accurate simulations of the earliest analogue pickups including the original’s crude and accidental inconsistencies.

While this section of the story is about guitar pickups, it is worth remembering that pickups have also been used successfully on many other types of stringed instrument.

Once the concept had been proven, the next step was to apply actual real‑world pickups in a practical way. There were essentially two methods of implementing an electromagnetic pickup for use on a guitar. One way was to add a pickup to existing acoustic instruments and the other was to invent an entirely new type of guitar with the pickup as an integral part of the design. How these two approaches came about will be covered in the next part of the story.

The pickup on its own, however, is of little use in isolation. Another crucial part of the equation was to take the weak signal from the guitar’s pickup and manipulate it electronically to make it much louder, which is where a completely different solution was needed.

The electric guitar amplifier

Possibly the major challenge with introducing guitar pickups was to turn the tiny voltage produced by the pickups into a sound that provided practical real‑world volume and tone for working musicians playing in noisy bands on the road.

The essential piece of equipment actually comprises two crucial components, the electrical amplifier and one or more loudspeakers. Amplifiers largely fall into two broad categories – either as discrete units comprising the electronics in a ‘head’ unit with loudspeakers installed in a separate cabinet, or with both amplifier and speaker(s) integrated into a single ‘combo’ amp. It is worth looking at the origins of both the electronics and the loudspeaker separately.

For travelling musicians from the 1930s on, amps also needed to be portable, so size and weight were particular considerations, as was electrical safety, durability and reliability. In addition, some degree of industry standardisation to enable interchangeability between instruments, electronics and venues was important.

The Amplifier

In the early days, amplifying a signal from a pickup was all that a guitar amp was really required to do. Controls were very basic, usually just a single input channel with a volume and, maybe, a tone knob. It would take some time before more flexible electronics were added to these basic amplifier circuits. Nowadays, the diversity of amps ranges from the very simple to the incredibly complex. The latter often including, just for starters, multiple switched channels, gain controls, effects loops, digital modelling alongside advanced EQ, flexible on‑board effects and digital interfaces. However, the fundamental principles of amp utility haven’t really changed that much since amps were first invented in the 1920s and when guitarists started to use them in the 1930s.

Put very simply, an amplifier is made up of active electronics that are designed to take an input signal, multiply it many times in strength and output it to a loudspeaker at a volume that is considerably louder than the original input. The electronics of an amplifier comprise essentially two discrete parts, a pre‑amp that controls the incoming signal and shapes it ready to be boosted and output by the power amp section that then drives the loudspeaker(s). It is these two amp sections that determine the overall character and volume of the audio output.

Amplifier output is usually measured in watts and provides a crude indication of power output (volts x amps = watts). The relationship between watts and sound pressure levels heard by the human ear is logarithmic. Generalising, it takes ten times the output power in watts to double the perceived audio volume. In addition, it takes considerably more amplifier power to reproduce low-frequency sound, especially at high volume, so bass amps tend to have higher power output ratings.

While early amplifiers were configured to the environment in which they were most likely to be put, such as practice, studio or stage amps, many modern amps use various techniques to minimise this artificial distinction, such as master volume controls, power attenuators or circuits used to modify amplifier stages to suit.

Up until the 1970s, thermionic valves – also known as vacuum tubes – were a principal electronic component and one that contributed significantly to both the power and sonic character of the amplifier. A valve is a relatively simple device used to control electrical current between its electrodes. The first valve was invented in 1904 by English electric engineer John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945).

At its most basic, a valve comprises an external glass container used to maintain a vacuum is attached to the valve base. Inside the valve there is a heater, an electron‑emitting cathode/filament and an electron‑collecting anode/plate. Electrical current, in the form of negatively charged electrons, flows through the vacuum in one direction only from the cathode to the anode. An electrical grid can be used to control the current and is the one often used for amplification because the grid can be used to vary the number of electrons reaching the anode and, thereby, controls the amount of gain. Valves are often described by the number of electrodes, for instance; diode, triode, tetrode  or pentode valves (2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively). The humble valve has been used in many applications, such as amplification, rectification, switching, oscillation, and display.

Valves come in many shapes and sizes and vary according to the function they are required to perform in the amp stages. Generally speaking, pre-amp tubes tend to be smaller, while power amp valves tend to be larger.

There are numerous alternatives and variations of valves and there isn’t room to cover the range of technical differences. Thankfully, there has been a degree of commonality in amplifier design over the decades. Typical valves used in pre‑amps include models such as the 12AX7/ECC83. Typical valves used in power amps include models such as the EL-34, EL-84, KT66/77/88, 6L6/5881 and 5150. Valves impart a characteristic ‘natural’ sonic signature and tend to be sensitive to a guitarist’s playing dynamics, which is why they are still widely favoured by many musicians to this day. While technically outdated and obsolete, there is a notable modern‑day industry built around valve production, amp manufacturing and valve amp maintenance.

The valve is the technological precursor to modern semiconductors. Semiconductors are often made of silicon, although they can be made from other materials, such as germanium. A transistor is a solid‑state semiconductor that roughly performs the same function as a valve and is commonly used for amplification. Transistors are smaller, cheaper, lighter, run cooler, are more reliable and more resilient than valves. Some manufacturers produce hybrid amps that aim to take the best characteristics of both valve and transistor technologies.

Taking things even further away from archaic valve technology, electronics using complex digital microprocessors are commonplace. Not only can DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chips produce their own sounds but also they enable a single unit to model a multiplicity of amplifier models that would be impossible using traditional technology. In addition, they can also emulate multiple effects, speaker cabinets, microphone placements, studio interfaces, and so on. Reliable and robust digital processing amps able to be used equally well at home, in the studio and on stage are once again attempting to usurp territory previously held by archaic analogue amps.

Specialist amps are made to make the most of other, albeit similar, electric instruments. For instance, electro‑acoustic guitars (acoustic guitars with pickups) produce a wider frequency range and tend to be ‘cleaner’ sounding than electric guitar amps, which has led to increasingly elaborate amp electronics to cater for the particular needs of acoustic guitar players. Bass amps and speakers are also engineered specifically to provide for the demanding amplification used by bass guitarists. There are no hard and fast rules, the lines are not always clearly drawn and there is inevitably some interchangeability between the general types.

One of the keys to success is to match the characteristics of the amplifier stages to the loudspeakers, so it is worth looking next at the humble loudspeaker and the important part it plays in the guitar sound’s signal chain.

The Loudspeaker

The latter part of the 19th Century was ripe for invention in the field of sound reproduction. As with other sections, only a few of the key milestones can be covered here. Prior to the invention of the modern loudspeaker, megaphones and bulky ‘radio horns’ had been used to increase acoustic volume. However these proved impractical because of their size and weight, limited frequency range and low sound pressure levels.

German teacher, Johann Philipp Reis was, perhaps, the first to develop a rudimentary type of experimental electric loudspeaker in 1861. Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent his loudspeaker design in 1876 for use in his telephone, shortly followed by Ernst W. Siemens who patented his ‘magneto-electric apparatus’ in 1874. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were also experimenting with sound around the same time. By 1898, Horace Short was working with compressed air drivers and Oliver Lodge was developing a ‘dynamic’ speaker using magnets and moving coils with horns to amplify sound. Danish‑American engineer Peter L. Jensen (1886-1961) is often cited as co‑inventor of moving coil speakers in 1915 and he started applying the technology for use in real world situations. Jensen founded his company, Magnavox, in 1915 to market products for telephones and public address (PA) systems. Magnavox is now part of the massive Philips corporation.

Things changed considerably in the 1920s with the introduction of the first amplified moving coil loudspeaker using a conical paper speaker diaphragm, which was invented in 1925 by Edward W. Kellogg and Chester W. Rice, both of whom worked for General Electric in New York, USA. Their research was important as it established both the principle of the amplifier to boost a signal and a speaker able to reproduce a wide and uniform frequency range. Rice filed a patent for the electrodynamic direct radiating ‘loud speaker’ in 1925, which was awarded in April 1929. Their speaker was introduced to the market under RCA’s Radiola brand in 1926.

Early speakers used powered electromagnets, as permanent magnets were scarce at the time, although Jensen released a fixed magnet speaker in 1930. Lightweight Alnico alloy magnets became available after WWII, making the technology more accessible enabling further innovations to take place. Other inventions along the way included, for example, 2‑way systems using a crossover to separate frequency bands (1937) and coaxial speakers (1943). Once the concept of the moving coil speaker had been proven in practical applications, it has become the de facto standard within the music industry for nearly a century.

The loudspeaker, as we know it today, is essentially a mechanical electroacoustic transducer that serves the opposite function to a microphone in that it converts an electrical signal into sound waves. A traditional moving coil speaker is passive in that it relies on an already amplified signal being fed to it and it doesn’t require its own power supply. The incoming amplified signal is fed into a coil of wire, known as the voice coil, suspended between the poles of a permanent magnet. The voice coil is attached to the apex of a conical diaphragm known as a speaker cone, originally made of paper. The outer edge of the cone is mounted within a fixed metal chassis, usually within a cabinet. The electrical signal makes the voice coil move back and forth rapidly within the magnet thereby pushing on the cone to produce sound waves. The more air that the moving speaker cone displaces, the louder the perceived sound is. Different sizes and types of speaker are used to deliver different sound frequency ranges. Generally, larger speakers are used to deliver lower bass frequencies and smaller ones used for higher treble frequencies.

Loudspeakers are usually attached to a flat panel (baffle) with circular holes cut into it such that the sound waves produced by the speaker cones can escape directly into the listening environment. The baffle with its speaker(s) is normally mounted inside either an open‑back or closed‑back wooden cabinet.

Like amplifier outputs, speaker output is usually measured in watts, which is the electrical power needed to drive the speaker. More watts generally, although not always, indicates greater volume. Like all electrical devices, a speaker provides some opposition to the signal being fed into it, called impedance, measured in ohms. Some speakers are ‘hard to drive’ and have a low impedance, which means that it requires greater current from the amplifier to result in the same output level than a high impedance speaker. As a result, it is important to match a speaker’s characteristics to the amp that is driving it.

Most loudspeakers, even those produced today, are relatively inefficient devices with only about 1% of the electrical energy being converted into acoustic energy. Most of the remaining energy is converted into heat. The sensitivity of the speaker describes how much relative electrical energy is converted into sound pressure level, measured in decibels.

The other important factor for loudspeaker performance is its frequency response. Human hearing generally covers the range 20-20,000 Hertz (cycles per second). People’s sensitivity to frequencies is not uniform and it varies depending on pitch. Human hearing is usually most sensitive in the 2,000-4,000 Hertz range.

Famous names in the field of loudspeaker manufacturing today include Celestion, Jensen, Weber, Electro Voice, JBL, Bose, Fane, Altec Lansing, Mackie, and Peavey amongst many others.

Despite its many drawbacks, the moving coil loudspeaker was (and generally still is) the most effective mechanism for the job and they remain in very wide use today. Speakers come in a multiplicity of shapes and sizes and are used in so many different ways. However, like the pickup and amplifier, the basic principles of speaker design can be traced back to the early part of the 20th Century.

 

Guitar Amps

Initially, bulky battery‑powered valve amps and speakers were used in PA systems and in movie theatres of the time. Because of their bulk and relative fragility, these early systems tended to be fixed installations. From c.1927, portable AC mains‑powered amps became available and musicians started to adopt the technology.

In 1928, Stromberg‑Voisinet advertised the first electric instrument and amplifier package. However, it was not a commercial success and no verified examples exist today. In 1929, Vega introduced a portable amplifier to be used with banjos.

It wasn’t until 1932 when the Electro String Instrument Corporation – later to become Rickenbacker – was formed to bring the electric guitar to market that things really took off. Electro launched a ‘high output’ guitar amp to accompany their new solid body electric lap steel guitars, as Hawaiian music was highly popular at the time across America. The first commercial solid bodied electric guitar and amplifier made by Electro String essentially established the format for early combo amps comprising an electronic amplifier mounted inside a wooden cabinet along with a speaker. The new combo amp also had a carrying handle to make it portable and, shortly after, the company added metal corners to protect the cabinets in transit.

In 1933, Dobro introduced the first guitar amp combo with twin 8 inch speakers. By around 1935, the demand for amplified electric guitars became unstoppable and the electric guitar music revolution had begun. Other companies such as National, RCA Victor, Audio-Vox, Vivi‑Tone, Premier, Vega, Kay, Valco and Volu‑Tone, promoted their own amps to musicians, with varying degrees of success during the 1930s and 1940s. Gibson was also experimenting with amplifiers in the early 1930s although none were made commercially available at the time. Most of the early valve amplifiers were low powered by today’s standards, usually less than 10-15 watts and using small speakers, often of 10 inches or less in diameter.

In 1938, American electronics technician, Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991) established Fender Radio Service to repair a wide variety of electronic equipment. He found that musicians would come to him for PA and amplifier repairs and rentals. Seeing the potential of the music industry and started to focus more on musical equipment manufacture. Fender began a short‑lived venture in 1944 with Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, a former employee of Rickenbacker called K&F Manufacturing Corporation with the intention to build Hawaiian lap steel guitars and amplifiers.

In 1946, after Kauffman and Fender parted company, Leo founded the company with which he will forever be associated, Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, based in Fullerton, California. Shortly thereafter, they introduced the first guitar amps carrying the Fender name. Early Fender combo amplifiers included the Fender Princeton (1947-1979) and Champion 800 (1948-1982).

In 1952, shortly after Fender introduced their Broadcaster guitar which would become the legendary Telecaster, the company introduced what would be, perhaps, its most celebrated combo amp, the famous Fender Twin. The Twin moniker derived from its dual 12 inch speakers. The Twin has been released in many versions over its long history, with its power output ranging from its original 25 watts to a high of 135 watts in the late 1970s. The perennial Fender Twin remains in production today and has become an industry standard.

Meanwhile, based in Kent, England Tom Jennings (1918-1978) founded British company Vox in 1947 to produce musical equipment. It wasn’t until 1958 that Vox released its first guitar amp, the 15‑watt AC15. A year later, at the request of The Shadows’ guitarist Hank Marvin, Vox introduced its most famous model, the AC30, intended to compete with America’s powerful Fender Twin amp. The AC30 proved to be a very successful product and in updated form, it remains in production today.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that mass produced guitar amplifiers really became commonplace and incorporated many of the features now expected from an amp including, for instance, multiple tone controls, tremolo and reverb.

In addition, contemporary popular music of the time was developing rapidly and guitarists began to experiment by overdriving their amplifiers to distort the guitar’s sound at much higher volumes. From the mid‑1960s guitarists sought to control the level of overdrive and distortion (also known as clipping) as a creative tool. One particular characteristic of natural valve distortion is that clipping also tends to compress the signal as the volume is increased, meaning the output tends to sound ‘thicker’, rather than louder, emphasising the guitar’s sustain.

Guitarist Dave Davies of English band The Kinks is often credited with popularising guitar distortion. On one occasion, Davies himself admitted to slashing the speaker cone of his Elpico AC55 ‘little green amp’ with a razor blade out of frustration and in the process of doing so, he made it sound distorted and nasty. The Kinks’ song, ‘You Really Got Me’ (1964) is often cited, rightly or wrongly, as the first hit record featuring heavy guitar distortion (using a Vox AC30).

The search for new guitar sounds in the 1960s helped to ignite the drive for compact guitar effect pedals, initially with simple fuzz and wah effects. A whole industry developed during the late 1960s and 1970s including brands such as Electro‑Harmonix, MXR, Maestro, Boss and Ibanez, amongst many, many others. Effects have ever since been used to complement guitars and amps as an integral part of a musician’s signal chain. The market for effect pedals has grown into a massive industry in its own right.

The development of guitars, amps and popular musical styles of the 1950s defined the template on which succeeding generations of guitarists would build incrementally. Many modern amps and amplifier innovations hark back to the best examples of this ‘golden’ period. Driven by the success of the 1950s, particularly the popularity of Fender amps, the quest for more volume seemed unquenchable. The first 100 watt amps were made by Leo Fender for surf guitarist Dick Dale, while Jim Marshall of legendary British amplifier manufacturers Marshall did the same for Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of rock band The Who.  Dr. Jim Marshall OBE was affectionately nicknamed, ‘the father of loud’.

High power, high gain valve guitar amps became the norm at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s. It was not uncommon to see large stages filled with gargantuan ‘stacks’ of loudspeaker cabinets powered by banks of high powered amps. Marshall is the brand most associated with the classic guitar stack, which at its simplest comprises a 50 or 100 watt amp on top of two 4×12” closed back speaker cabinets, thanks again to Pete Townshend of The Who as well as the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. The guitar stack has since become inextricably linked with hard, heavy and metal rock music. Music and its essential components very much reflected the cultural and social changes of the times.

There have been several technological challenges to the humble valve. A concerted trend away from vacuum tubes towards solid state transistor amps occurred in the 1970s, led by companies like Roland, Peavey and H/H. Other manufacturers adopted a best‑of‑both‑worlds approach by making hybrid solid state/valve amps, led by Leo Fender during his time with Music Man.

Arguably, Fender, Marshall remain the two predominant and recognisable amplifier brands and, respectively, have come to define the ‘American sound’ and ‘British sound’ respectively. Notably, unlike Fender, Gibson has never had much commercial success with building guitar amps, despite producing some credible models along the way. There are now a myriad of other amplifier manufacturers including famous brand names such as Mesa Boogie, Peavey, Ampeg, Randall, Rivera, Bogner, PRS and Supro in America, and Vox, Orange, Blackstar, Victory, Hi-Watt and Laney in the UK. Outside the USA and UK, there are many successful brands including Hughes & Kettner, Engl, Line6, Roland, Yamaha, BOSS, etc. In order to keep production costs down, many budget models are now produced in the Far East, while the majority of small boutique amp builders cater for the high‑end, being manufactured in limited numbers in America and Europe.

Many other famous brand names have passed into history, such as Traynor, Sunn, Multivox Premier, Univox, WEM/Watkins, Sound City, H/H, Selmer, Cornford and Carlsbro although, to be fair, some of these continue to operate in some form or other and may well be rejuvenated at some point. There are far too many brands, past and present, to mention here.

Ironically, there is increasing interest in capturing the retro sound and looks of the earliest guitar amplifiers. Many companies are now recreating classic analogue models of the past, often incorporating modern adaptations for reliability, safety and convenience to meet the demands of today’s guitarists. There are many boutique amp builders looking to take the best of old and new and present something different from the current mainstream manufacturers.

At this point, no article focusing on guitar amps would be complete without mentioning Dumble amplifiers. Dumble amps are made in very small numbers by Alexander ‘Howard’ Dumble in L.A., California, often by request of well‑heeled professional musicians. The Dumble Overdrive Special is widely regarded as the zenith of limited production boutique amps and, as a result of their quality and rarity, new or used examples have gained almost mythical status and demand extremely high values on the open market.

Despite the remarkable sustained popularity of valves, digital modelling technology is now making major inroads into the tube’s traditional territory. As the technological advances behind digital modelling processors that began with the iconic Line 6 Pod through to ever‑improving digital advances from companies like Fractal and Kemper. The audible difference between the ‘antiquated’ originals and modern digital recreations is rapidly diminishing to the point where professional musicians see a competitive advantage in moving to a digital platform.

Despite stiff competition from solid state and digital circuits, the valve guitar amp currently remains the de facto standard for many discerning professional guitarists, despite the decidedly old-world technology involved. It will be interesting to see how long genuine valve amplifiers will continue to prosper in the face of the digital revolution. Only time and hindsight will tell. It is likely that valve, analogue solid state and digital technologies will be able to coexist for many years yet.

Get connected

Guitars need to be connected to an amp in order to work, often with effect pedals in between. Before wireless and/or digital technology takes over completely, the venerable guitar lead has been the necessary link between input and output since the 1930s. At each end of a traditional interconnecting lead is a remarkable piece of analogue kit that most guitarists rarely think about but cannot live without. Similarly, guitars, amps and effects also have the other part of the same connection.

The essential connector in question is the ¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and its associated socket, which originally dates from c.1878. The first jack connector was invented by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manual switchboard at the telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. It is astonishing that, after nearly 1½ centuries, this enduring piece of industry standard equipment is still in ubiquitous use today, long after it became obsolete in telephone systems.

End of Part IV

This has been a self‑contained article that departs from the usual topic of guitars per se. While it might seem a lengthy, in‑depth examination, it only just scratches the surface. As I don’t have the space, knowledge or resources to write comprehensively on the subject, I highly recommend that readers wanting to delve into the historical detail take a look at the innumerable resources available on the ever‑present hinterwebby thing. NB. Credit to all original photographers for images used from Google Images.

Arguably, without the complementary inventions of the electromagnetic pickup, the dedicated valve amplifier and the moving coil loudspeaker, the revolution in guitar technology that started in the 1930s and which really took off in the 1950s would not have been possible. It is notable that the scientific principles underpinning today’s electric guitars are still relevant nearly a century later. It is, at least to me, remarkable that, technically, we haven’t really evolved a great deal over the intervening decades. Advances have been incremental refinements, rather than ground breaking. Digital technology may change all that. Watch this space.

At long last, in Part V, the story will finally unleash the breakthroughs that led directly to the early electric archtop and solid body guitars. The next revolution in guitar music making was about to happen. Who could possibly have anticipated the impact that the congruence of the three seemingly innocuous bits of music technology covered above would have when brought together.

I hope you have enjoyed the journey thus far and thank you for reading. I also hope that you’ll come back and join me on the next part of the guitar’s long journey to the current day. Time to get some vintage gear out and plug in. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Excess in any form does not indicate wisdom; rather it evidences the lack of it”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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October 2017 – What Qualifies As A CRAVE Guitar?

When canvassing ideas for this month’s article, I was asked why I don’t feature bass guitars to the same extent as the 6-stirngers. I did point out that CRAVE Guitars is already home to Fender Precision and Music Man Stingray basses. However, such simple questions tend to switch on my stream of consciousness. Not content with answering just this question, I thought I might as well address the similar query I have been asked about acoustic guitars as well as other instruments, accessories, merchandise and even non‑guitar‑related stuff! There are not many pictures this month, as the narrative is mainly explanatory.

The short and simple answer is contained in the acronym C.R.A.V.E. (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars so, if that satisfies your curiosity, you can safely stop reading now. For the masochists out there, a little (!) more exposition is required; sorry.

Expanding the acronym is, however, probably a good place to start, so let’s begin with perhaps the most problematic letter…

C is for Cool (Adj.)

For starters, this has nothing to do with temperature. The cool I am talking about is a very subjective, value-laden word with many subtle and indefinable nuances. In its colloquial context, it can mean ‘excellent’ or ‘alright’, as well as ‘fashionable’ or ‘hip’. Slang dictionaries also cite ‘awesome’ or ‘trendy’. These all seem to me to be both superficial and insufficient when trying to convey what I understand cool to mean. To make it easier, perhaps, these adjectives convey a bit more relevance if suffixed with the word ‘dude’.

In relation to the world’s favourite musical instrument, there are the mainstream guitars, most of which have an inherent level of cool anyway and, as you are reading this article, I don’t think I need to state the bleeding obvious, especially where vintage is also a contributory factor (see ‘V’ below). It is, perhaps, the more unusual guitars, which to me radiate cool. Cool transcends simple descriptions such as character or quirkiness.

How on earth does a guitar become and stay cool, and is there a standardised unit of measurement to quantify just how much cool something has? Quite simply, it simply isn’t that simple. For a guitar to be cool it has to exude some sort of cachet or ooze some sort of wow factor. It may have some quintessential ingredient that makes it irresistibly, achingly desirable to those in the know. Things that are cool are utterly seductive despite any objective rational thinking to the contrary (it may be non‑PC but the same goes for women!).

What one person thinks of as cool can be a complete anathema to someone else, while another person may be completely oblivious to it. This suggests that cool is therefore intrinsically a very personal thing. The fascinating thing about cool is when there is an unwritten collective agreement and a shared understanding that something is more than it appears to be on the face of it. Cool, to me, is therefore an unconscious state of mind that has no palpable embodiment.

Sustained cool that is appreciated by like-minded people can lead to a cult status amongst a relatively small proportion of the population, which everyone else completely fails to grasp. Cool therefore also has a degree of exclusivity. Cool cannot be a universally accepted characteristic; it will always be appreciated by the few and ignored by the many. If something becomes popular on the mass market, it automatically ceases to be cool.

Last month, I mentioned the Fender Bronco, a modest single pickup offset ‘student’ guitar that languished in the vintage guitar doldrums until Alex Turner and Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene. The band was considered cool and the instruments that they used suddenly became cool simply by association. Consequently, the broad appeal for the Bronco coalesced pretty much overnight. Broncos are still cool and attract vintage guitar market values that were unheard of before the band came to prominence. There are plenty of other examples; for instance, would the humble Danelectro 3021 be the icon that it is today without Jimmy Page or the Airline J.B. Hutto be so sought after if not for Jack White?

The transferable phenomenon suggests that cool by association can be infectious. Cool is, however, not physical or perpetual, as it can disappear just as quickly and inexplicably as it appeared in the first place. Furthermore, you cannot make cool, sell cool, buy cool, or pass something off as cool if it isn’t. It therefore exhibits an unusual characteristic of being both intangible and valuable at the same time.

CRAVE Guitars isn’t about what I think other people may like, it is primarily about what I like. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try to tell you whether CRAVE Guitars’ instruments are cool or not, that is for you to decide for yourself. I just hope that I have a certain taste that others can appreciate and relate with. However, just for the record, I think they are pretty darn cool individually and, perhaps more importantly as a ‘collection’. I try to raise awareness of some interesting guitars (and amps/effects) and then pose some questions to challenge broadly held preconceptions. Perhaps you might make the irrational shift of ill‑informed choice and agree with the dude (or not, I sure ain’t gonna argue!).

R is for Rare (Adj.)

You’d think this would be obvious… but there is more to it than that. Rare in this context doesn’t actually mean that they are all genuinely scarce in absolute terms. By rare here, I mean that they are limited in number and therefore finite because there cannot be any more new guitars for a certain model from a certain manufacturer for any given year. This is an undeniable fact.

By rare, I’m also suggesting that each one is essentially irreplaceable. If a vintage guitar is destroyed or dismantled, there is a unit reduction in the total number of that model that will ever be available. Whether there were only ever just a handful or many thousands of a particular model produced, there will only be a certain number of each guitar in existence that can feed the vintage guitar market now or in the future. Newer instruments will eventually become vintage but these will be additional to, not substitutes for, what went before.

In addition, each vintage instrument will now be absolutely unique in its own way. Several or many decades of (ab)use bestow certain vestiges of age that are individual to that instrument and which cannot be reproduced (sorry, relic fans). It is this distinctive and natural aging that gives an instrument its uniqueness. Even better if guitars have some sort of genuine story associated with them (or sense of mystery if not).

I should also say that rare in this context does not imply value – there are many other characteristics in addition to rarity that dictate whether a guitar is valuable or not. None of CRAVE Guitars’ instruments are truly valuable, sadly, I wish they were. However, some guitars are rarer than others and therefore have a degree of interest associated with them purely because there are not many of them to go around. Others were mass produced at the time and remain plentiful on the vintage market but only for the time being, as attrition will inevitably occur. Just because something is (relatively) abundant, it doesn’t diminish its appeal.

& – At his point, I might as well comment on the ‘&’ in the CRAVE acronym. It doesn’t mean that every guitar is Cool AND Rare. These adjectives are not mutually exclusive. To be honest, a title where the ‘&’ means ‘cool and/or rare; possibly one or the other, perhaps both or maybe neither’ doesn’t make any sense. It is therefore not a qualifier; it is simply a necessary vehicle of the English language, so get over it grammar pedants (say I hypocritically).

A is for American (Adj.)

You might also think that this criterion is straightforward and, of course, it isn’t. Some guitars in the CRAVE family are all-American, which makes things simple. Some, however, have original materials and/or parts imported from other countries. As far as I am aware, none of my guitars (or basses) were wholly manufactured outside America.

I would actually argue that there have been very few instruments that are actually 100% American so, as with other factors, it is all a matter of degree. So we have to start with the premise that ‘American’ implies a significant but not necessarily total part of the process of producing guitars.

It isn’t just that they are designed by American-owned companies. Danelectro, for instance, has its headquarters in the USA, designs its instruments in the USA and manufactures them in China. Other American firms may import the key elements to be assembled and/or QA’d in the States. Does this make them American? I would argue in both circumstances that it doesn’t. To make things easier, I don’t believe that there are any non-American companies that manufacture in the USA for all sorts of political, social, economic, legal and environmental reasons.

What about some of the key parts of a guitar that customers demand and expect? For example, could a guitar with a Brazilian or Indonesian rosewood fingerboard or a Honduran mahogany body genuinely be called American? In this instance, I believe that it can, as this refers to the source of raw materials, not the manufacturing process. The same applies to hardware, e.g. German tuners and bridges, Mexican switches and Japanese potentiometers. We have to accept that American guitars are partially imported in one way or another.

American trade rules were/are very strict about what items can carry the ‘Made in U.S.A.’ label. I won’t delve any deeper into this thorny issue in this article. Suffice to say that, as far as I am concerned, as long as it complies with the definition imposed by the federal USA government, it is ‘American’.

I have often been asked why I don’t go for guitars from other regions such as Europe or Asia. There are some fantastic instruments from non-American territories (see the CRAVE Guitars article from August 2017 – ‘A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars’ → Read here). For now, to open the flood gates to global guitar collecting would, I believe, dilute what CRAVE Guitars is all about. Also, I just couldn’t cope with it all – it would be way too much for such a small enterprise. For now at least, integrity of the American ‘collection’ is paramount.

Where I do consciously blur geographical lines is in effect pedals where European and Japanese pedals qualify as part of the ‘family’. Why? Simply because they are such an integral part of the British/American music scene from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll onwards. Plus, there are so many global cool and rare effects that it doesn’t make practical sense to be strictly exclusive. As effects are not the primary focus of CRAVE Guitars, I can be a little more lenient. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Should I need to liquidate funds though, the non-American effects would be at the front of the queue.

At the moment, my vintage amps are strictly American, although I have been tempted by vintage English amps from, for instance VOX, Marshall and Orange, although less so WEM, Hiwatt and Laney. Perhaps it’s because I started playing electric guitar in the 1970s, I also have a soft spot for vintage solid state amps such as H/H from England and Roland from Japan, so I’m not a complete valve snob. I may also be tempted to blur the lines here one day but not for now. There are plenty of great American amps to admire. One difficulty is that they are just too difficult to import and adapt for UK mains supply, let alone maintain. To be honest, I also don’t have space for a lot of amps, so that makes things simpler.

V is for Vintage (Noun/Adj.)

I have covered the various definitions and interpretations of what might constitute ‘vintage’ in relation to guitars before, so I won’t reiterate those discussions here.

Essentially, there is no clear start date for what might become a CRAVE Guitar. Perhaps the early‑mid 1930s might be a legitimate starting point, representing the dawn of electric guitars. However, if someone were to offer me an early 1900s Gibson Style O acoustic archtop or a 1920s National acoustic resonator for instance, I am not going to turn either of those down! Hint, hint.

The end point is necessarily arbitrary. I tend to think of mid-late 1980s as the general cut‑off for many reasons. Anything from 1990‑on is of personal interest, rather than something eligible for CRAVE Guitars. I have retained a couple of modern Gibsons that I use as modern benchmarks and reference instruments to compare with older guitars (and for sentimental reasons). I no longer have any modern Fenders, although I’d like a modern Stratocaster or Telecaster for comparative purposes. Being purely pragmatic, I generally focus on electric guitars from the 1950s to 1980s inclusive – at the time of writing, the earliest is 1959 and the latest is 1989 – a period spanning just 40 years which, in context of guitar history, is nothing at all and may prove to be too restrictive in the future. For now, though, there are plenty of vintage guitars on the market made in those four decades from which to choose.

There is a bigger question about whether vintage is ‘better’ than new. This is not the time for such a complex discussion. However, for instance, in a blind test where touch and sound are the only stimuli, whether a guitar is physically old actually adds anything to the overall music‑making experience or not is debateable. New guitars can be made to look, feel and sound old but, no matter how good the craftsmanship, they cannot actually BE old.

Much also depends on the use to which a guitar will be put. For most working musicians, reliability and durability are probably far more important than age, especially in a live concert environment where the subtle nuances of vintage tone can be completely lost. A gigging situation is also environmentally demanding, never mind the practical risks of taking a valuable and irreplaceable vintage instrument on the road. In principle, modern guitars are in so many ways a much more appropriate solution than their vintage counterparts, particularly for the professional musician. Personally though, modern guitar ownership is no longer for me and what I do, so my focus is for older, lived-in but not worn out instruments.

E is for Electric (Adj.)

As far as acoustic guitars are concerned, sorry, but they just don’t do it for me. I don’t know why. This applies equally to nylon strung classical guitars and steel strung acoustics. Perhaps it’s the sound, perhaps it’s the playability, or perhaps it’s the aesthetics. To be honest, my knowledge of acoustics is very slim compared to their electric counterparts, so I may be missing something obvious in terms of appeal.

I acknowledge that without the acoustic guitar, we wouldn’t have electric guitars as we know them, so the historical significance is fully understood. I am interested in the acoustic guitar’s position in musical antiquity and I am writing about that as a separate piece of research. However, given a choice of picking up a comparable acoustic or electric, the latter would win 9 times out of 10. Personally, I like to plug my guitars in and experience the diverse sonic pleasures of an electric guitar being used for its intended purpose. For recording or stage use, I find microphones for an acoustic guitar a complete pain, whereas I can just plug in an electric, so the latter also wins on practicality.

I often play electric guitars unplugged when practising or noodling. An unplugged electric gives a good indication of the natural resonance of the ‘old wood’. It also focuses the senses on playability and ergonomics. I might suggest that a good electric guitar will come across as good when it is played either acoustically or plugged in. However, vintage electric guitars really come into their own when driving a vintage valve amp, perhaps with the odd vintage analogue pedal added to the mix. In this setting, electric guitars can feel alive with dynamics, touch‑sensitivity and sensory feedback in a way that an acoustic just can’t match, at least for me. I would argue that an electric guitar is also far more versatile with an array of different sounds and tones that it can produce.

OK then, here’s the crux… How many rock guitar gods from the halcyon days of Santana, Green, Clapton, Richards and Hendrix, through the experimentalist era of Page, Beck, Blackmore, Iommi and Zappa to the post-modern virtuosos such as Van Halen, Slash, Vai, Satriani and Vaughan have plied their trade exclusively playing acoustic guitars? None to my knowledge, that’s how many. The truth of the matter is that it’s the cutting, screaming, wailing, sighing, jangling and shredding of the amplified, effected electric guitar in the hands of musical geniuses that has forged the mainstay of the rock (‘n’ roll) paradigm over the last 6 decades or so. There are, admittedly, many acoustic guitar prodigies but they don’t feature on my ‘top guitarists’ or ‘top albums’ lists. I rest my case m’lud.

Arguably, it’s the music that matters, rather than whether instruments are amplified or not. In fact, one of my favourite live albums is Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994), so I’m not averse to acoustic music, it’s a simple matter of personal preference. I would also contest that, unless one is within a few feet of an acoustic guitar played live, the sound is amplified in one way or another, whether by an amp, a PA, a TV or a hi-fi. I don’t want to get into arguments about which is better; to me, they are just different.

There are many superb vintage acoustic guitars on the market and in the hands of collectors. With the usual finite resources (time, money and space), acoustic guitars will, for now, remain outside the scope of CRAVE Guitars. In addition, there are currently no real vintage electro‑acoustics out there to tempt me. Whatever the reasoning behind my bias, I’ll leave acoustics for the many specialists already occupying that particular space.

I would, however, like to have a good vintage acoustic to hand, just for those occasions when the mood strikes and one wants to strum or fingerpick a tune for a change. I agree that playing an acoustic brings a whole different outlook on composition, arrangement and performance and they are therefore a great complement to electric guitars. You never know, I might be tempted. Something like an old Martin D28 or Gibson J-200 perhaps? Again… hint, hint.

Guitars (Noun)

This will, hopefully, answer the original question at the start of this article about basses. Basically (haha), I am first and foremost a guitarist and I therefore focus on 6-string instruments rather than basses. For the record, I like playing bass and I think that it is good for guitarists to be able to play bass effectively, as it can improve rhythmic and timing abilities as well as adding a different perspective to songwriting. As mentioned at the top of this article, CRAVE Guitars actually has 2 vintage basses and a vintage valve bass amp as part of the ‘family’, which is enough as far as my personal need goes.

Yes, I’d like a vintage Fender Jazz bass and I’d happily accommodate a short-scale vintage Fender Mustang or Musicmaster bass, mainly because they are so cute, funky and cool. I’d also be quite happy with a vintage Gibson EB-0 or a Rickenbacker 4001 bass if a good one came along at a reasonable price and doesn’t displace a sought‑after guitar. Bridging the gap between guitar and bass, a vintage pre-CBS Fender Bass VI has been on my ‘most wanted’ list for a long time but original ones are becoming way, way too expensive. For the third time, hint, hint.

There are many other variations on the stringed instrument theme from diddley-bow guitars with only a single string through cigar box/oil can guitars, tenors and baritones, 12-string guitars, to harp guitars with many strings, as well as double or multi-neck instruments. Then there are are banjos, mandolins, zithers, hurdy‑gurdys, lutes, bouzoukis, balalaikas, not to mention many Asian instruments, as well as numerous European classical and folk stringed instruments. Again, if only for practical reasons, they are all outside the scope of CRAVE Guitars. As with acoustics and basses, there are plenty of specialists focusing on some wonderful exotic stringed instruments from all over the world, so that means I don’t have to.

While on the subject of CRAVE Guitars eligibility, there are a few other factors that come into play. NB. All of these conditions apply equally to amps and effects.

Condition – Condition is very important for me. This doesn’t mean that a guitar has to be museum or collector-grade, far from it. A well-used vintage instrument will have many visible signs of use that give it much of its charisma. If a guitar is 50 years old but looks as if it was made yesterday, it lacks that unwritten backstory of being used that might make it desirable (at least to me). Conversely, an abused ‘players’ guitar’ is of little interest to me, as it is likely to be in relatively poor condition through misuse – a lack of respect for an instrument is generally not a good sign. Once a guitar has been seriously compromised, it will never be the same again. Even if it is professionally restored, a knackered guitar loses so much of its integrity and originality (see below). The issue of restoration to protect and conserve important musical instrument heritage is another story for another day. Badly damaged guitars are a big no-no for CRAVE Guitars, including major damage like neck/headstock breaks, bad repairs, etc.

Originality – Originality is also very important for me. Irreversible modifications are an issue, including refinishes, routing for pickups, holes, adaptations, etc. I have one refinished guitar, my ‘signature’ 1975 Gibson Les Paul, and I regret having it done back in the late 1970s – it had a lot of buckle rash from the previous owner and it seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. I tolerate minor changes such as replacement pots (where there was a fault), tuners, etc. Several CRAVE guitars have had reversible minor modifications and each one is considered on a case‑by‑case basis. In theory, most bits of hardware can easily be put back to original condition if the correct parts are available. If guitars come with original cases, great: if they come with the original tags, manuals and case candy as well, even better. However, it’s the guitar that matters, not the case.

Affordable – I am a financially poor enthusiast with very limited funds, so my spotlight tends to fall on ‘affordable vintage’ guitars. Fortunately, the cool & rare criteria often make some relatively inexpensive guitars available, compared to the elite high‑end investment‑grade instruments. Market accessibility is therefore an important factor for me. I sympathise with neophytes who are interested in and want to own vintage guitars but find the whole scene too ‘exclusive’ – we all have to start somewhere. The ‘easy entry’ end of the vintage market is another reason why I like to focus on a wide range of instruments including some interesting oddballs within reach of many wannabes. Just to qualify, ‘affordable’ doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, it means cost‑effective and value‑for‑money, which can mean different things at different price points. Recently, I have paid (considerably) over market value for a couple of instruments in which I had a specific interest, so I’m not a very good businessman with an eye on future profit margins.

Other Stuff – Another question I’ve been asked is why I don’t sell ‘other stuff’ to support the core vintage guitar enterprise. Three principal reasons; a) I don’t have the money to spend on ‘other stuff’ even if it could partly subsidise the core ‘business’, b) I don’t have sufficient time or space to achieve the core ‘business’, let alone anything extra‑curricular, and c) I’m generally not that interested in ‘other stuff’. I would like to diversify into CRAVE Guitars merchandise such as t-shirts, mugs, plectrums, cards, etc. (orders, please). I might also be tempted into vintage guitar related miscellanea such as jewellery, memorabilia, etc. Diversification also relies on surplus amounts of a) and b) above which, frankly, is looking highly unlikely. The discipline of focusing predominantly on Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars (now that it has been defined) has to remain relatively pure or I will never be able to make a going concern of it.

The CRAVE Guitars Brand – Brand identity is essential to back up the umbrella CRAVE Guitars trademark. Strategically, if I had more time, money, energy and space, I would definitely create 2 key partner enterprises for vintage instruments to complement CRAVE Guitars. Despite what I said above, CRAVE Basses and CRAVE Acoustics would be on the cards. The ‘E’ part of the acronym becomes a bit less relevant for acoustics (however, I have thought of a solution to that too) but the spirit remains integral to the original concept. My long‑term intention is to create a further 2 complementary enterprises for CRAVE Amps and CRAVE Effects. I may permit someone else to use CRAVE Drums, CRAVE Keyboards and CRAVE Stage & Studio though (unless I change my mind in the meantime). Just be aware that, in terms of copyright ownership, I thought of these first – royalties in an envelope please! I would consider flexible partnership arrangements with a like-minded obsessive keen to expand the CRAVE franchise into these areas, as long as the necessary resources accompany the mission.

Virtual CRAVE Guitars – Social media, predominantly Twitter, takes up a considerable amount of time as does the web site (www.craveguitars.co.uk), including researching and publishing these articles. The social media topics covered are essentially guitar‑related but draw from a very broad interest, encompassing material way beyond the tight C.R.A.V.E. criteria. The problem I have with it is that it is highly resource intensive and the activity intrinsically will never make any money, it is purely about entertaining a diverse audience and raising the profile of what CRAVE Guitars is all about.

In Summary

So, to précis all the above, I use a few simple rules to separate out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. Regardless of brand, price or reputation, CRAVE Guitars should be:

  1. Cool – Quirky, unusual, unique or a variation on a theme, preferably with some added character and interest
  2. Rare – All things being relative, supply is limited, including short-lived or small‑run production models
  3. American – Possibly my one hard and fast rule, the all‑important ‘Made in U.S.A.’ mark
  4. Vintage – Manufactured between c.1950 and 1989 – possibly earlier and unlikely to be later
  5. Electric – I’m not really an acoustic guitar fan. Electric archtops, semis, hollow bodies and resonators are fine though
  6. Guitars – Mainly 6-string instruments. Basses are included but they are not the primary focus

In addition, being pragmatic, a CRAVE Guitar needs to be:

  • In good condition with no serious damage or alterations
  • All‑original or very close to it with no irreversible modifications
  • Cost‑effective and good value‑for‑money

One last pertinent comment before I shut up is to mention the alternative meaning of the word ‘crave’, which is ‘to desire’, ‘to yearn for’ or ‘to want greatly’. This double‑entendre is both important and intentional. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple rhetorical question when looking for vintage guitars (et al), “Is this a really cool guitar that I would want to own and play?” If the answer is “yes”, I would want to showcase it for others to (hopefully) appreciate. However, if I can’t live with a guitar, I wouldn’t dare to presume that it might be of any interest to anyone else. If I don’t hanker after a particular guitar, it doesn’t join the CRAVE ‘family’ no matter how much it is worth.

It is only when all these factors come together that a guitar is likely to join the CRAVE Guitars clan. I am not a dealer and CRAVE Guitars is strictly a not‑for‑profit passion project. Once adopted, a guitar tends to hang around for a considerable period of time. I tend to enter into relationships with my guitars, which means that I’m not one to buy and sell instruments on a whim. I would need strong persuasion to part with one of the ‘family’.

I am amazed that, reflecting on the ‘rules’, they have hardly changed in over a decade, which is encouraging. 10 years ago, when I started to thin the herd and began to refine the ‘business’ model above, the focus was quite strictly on acquiring vintage guitars made by Fender and Gibson. I now realise that this was too exclusive and the net is now being cast more widely. I do, however, remain selective and anticipate that the mainstays of the ‘family’ will remain vintage instruments from ‘Big 2’. Why? Quite simply, that’s what I grew up aspiring to own one day and I suspect that the same applies for many other guitarists who grew up in the 20th Century. The future may well be different and that will be for someone else to take up the mantle long after I and CRAVE Guitars have faded into posterity.

I can put my hand on my heart and swear that I believe that (most of) the guitars that have made up the ‘family’ over the last decade conform to these basic principles. As a core operating model, I think that the principles are helpful and clear, which may become an advantage should CRAVE Guitars become a successful business one day. The principles also differentiate what I do from the competition.

You may well disagree with my philosophy and choice of guitars (et al) but, to be uncompromisingly blunt, that’s not my problem. CRAVE Guitars is internally consistent. If you want to do your own thing using your own preferences, that’s entirely up to you and I wish you well.

In conclusion, now having defined the objective, justified the criteria and articulated the rationale, I hope that the idea behind CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars makes some (common) sense. I think that I have also provided answers to both of the specific question about bass/acoustic guitars, as well as the bigger picture question of what it takes for an instrument (or amp/effect) to be considered a member of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’.

What’s coming up? Well, I hope to have some ‘new in’ headlines for the November 2017 article. In the meantime, I think that it’s time to warm up those vintage valves and plug in my ‘guitare de jour’… now which one shall I go for? Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Integrity is doing what you believe to be right and your conviction to stand up for it in the face of concerted opposition.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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July 2017 – Happy Birthday: 10 Years of CRAVE Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars hits its double-digit birthday this year. Yep, ‘it’ has been in existence for 10 years now. This isn’t cause for a stupendous jubilee or anything like that (although I’m open to offers!). However, perhaps, for selfish reasons it deserves a moment of reflection, recognition and celebration of a modest milestone.

I don’t recall a specific date when, on one day CRAVE Guitars didn’t exist and the next day it burst into fully-formed existence, big-bang-like. I don’t think I’ve really thought about how CRAVE Guitars emerged from the primordial swamp and learn to breathe on dry land for the first time. Like a primitive heterotroph, it has become aware of its surroundings, still crawling about on all fours but unable to fend for itself or take advantage of the resources around it.

In terms of determining its own destiny, there is no driving ambition for the future. So… perhaps it is an opportunity to review CRAVE’s journey from infancy, through adolescence to what adulthood might hold for it. Before we delve headlong in, please bear in mind that this is a modest amateur enterprise built on a shoestring over many years of frustrating obsession.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin… Here’s how CRAVE Guitars came about. The journey began in the 1970s, experienced a frustrating hiatus during the 1980s, received a faltering nudge in the late 1990s, spurred into growth in the noughties, dealt disaster in the early teenies and is now beginning to repair the damage and put things back together around 10th anniversary-time.

1970s:

I started playing guitar as a young teenager in the early 1970s when my father gave me a used acoustic, not realising that it would have long‑lasting and far‑reaching effects. After attaining a level of competence that enabled me to play in bands and then realising that I wasn’t competent enough to earn a living at it, guitars became a benign hobby, rather than an occupation. I had a few favourite guitars left over from playing days, including a 1977 Fender Stratocaster hardtail, a refinished 1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard, a 1978 Music Man Stingray bass and a cheap old nylon-strung classical guitar, all of which, unbelievably, I still have!

1977 Fender Stratocaster
1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard
1978 Music Man Stingray Bass

1980s:

Ah, the odious decade of all-consuming ‘adult responsibility’, when guitars and guitar playing were relegated to a tertiary interest, left drifting aimlessly in the doldrums of work and family life. I have always put my own needs secondary and that, as they say, was that – my life was subsumed by the mediocre routine of daily existence. I did manage to keep hold of the core three electric guitars, hanging on a spare bedroom wall, relatively unloved. The least said about these ‘lost’ years the better in this context. The passion for guitars was, however, dormant rather than extinct. Perhaps my subconscious knew that, someday, that sleeping volcano would lumber back to life.

1990s:

In a rollover from the 1980s, guitars and everything that goes with them remained quiescent (oppressed?) during the majority of the 1990s. Until… my interest was rekindled in c.1997 on a day visit to Cardiff, Wales. Little did I know at the time that this would provide the catalyst for later events. While wandering the city streets, perusing the typical high street shopping facilities, I chanced upon Cranes Music Store, which has been in business since 1851 and is still going in Swansea (see: http://www.cranes.co.uk/). Looking around the shop, my attention was drawn to a fairly ordinary black 1988 Fender Telecaster for £400. To that point, bizarrely, I had never owned a Tele, so I was vulnerable to that worst of all situations… strong craving and overwhelming temptation. This was compounded because we were only there for the day, which meant that a snap decision had to be made. The combination of circumstances led to the inevitable acquisition of said craved Tele. At the time of writing, it is still a CRAVE Guitar.

1988 Fender Telecaster American Standard

I had been missing guitars and playing, and this single event rekindled my appetite for the instrument. Bear in mind that this was about 10 years before my thoughts and ideas would aggregate into something more tangible. However, the seed had been planted. No further guitar purchases took place at the time. I bought a Fender Princeton Chorus 2×10” solid-state amp, so that I could at least make quasi-musical noises again.

2000s:

The focus at the turn of the millennium, however, was not on vintage gear. During the early noughties, I bought a few diverse new guitars, amps and effects here and there, whatever took my fancy at the time. My mother left me some money, so I was able to purchase some brand new quality guitars including a 1999 Fender Stratocaster a 1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC, a 1999 Gibson SG Standard, a 2002 Gibson ES-335, and a 2002 Gibson Les Paul Standard. These are all great modern guitars. Three of those have now gone, which says something about the new versus old debate going on in my head. The trouble, if that’s the right word, was a lack of direction and no real motivation to change it for something else.

1999 Fender Stratocaster American Standard
2002 Gibson ES-335 Reissue TDC
1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC
2002 Gibson Les Paul Standard
1999 Gibson SG Standard

That is until… the defining moment came during a day out to Brighton in the summer of 2007. Wandering in North Laines, I saw a rather nice but not pristine black 1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom – perhaps the most iconic of all rock guitars and another model that I hadn’t previously owned. While it wasn’t (yet) vintage, I was attracted by the patina and it had just enough signs of use to give it ‘that’ look. I wasn’t actively searching for a guitar, so I didn’t know how much it should cost but it seemed quite reasonable compared to new prices at the time. It also looked way cooler than the shiny new ones on sale nearby. Like the Telecaster before it, a snap decision was required. The craving got the better of me again and consequently, like the Tele 10 years earlier, it came home with me. Also like the Tele, that Les Paul Custom is still a CRAVE Guitar.

1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom

Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to get into vintage guitars at the time, it triggered a curiosity in older instruments as well as the history behind older guitars, the wider music industry, and the socio-political context which it helped to influence. CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars, which had been SO long in gestation, was thus delivered unto this world as a ‘thing’. While the concept didn’t have a discrete identity at the time, I was hooked and I haven’t looked back since. From that moment, most brand new instruments, while nice to look at, now hold little or no allure.

I started researching and buying some rather nice vintage guitars, some imported from America, when the exchange rate was much more favourable than it is now. As a direct result of the epiphany, the ambition for a vintage guitar business idea began growing. The name came first, being a play on words as well as the strong emotion that overcomes any attempt at futile resistance to guitar ownership. The first ‘logo’ was simple typography (see below), rather than properly designed. The first ‘catalogue’ from early 2008 comprised 27 guitars, all from the Fender and Gibson stables.

CRAVE Guitars Original Logo 2008

All guitar purchases since 2007 complied with the CRAVE Guitars simple criteria, i.e. Cool, Rare, American, Vintage and Electric. As far as possible, they are all original and undamaged/unmodified. The majority of those instruments now form the core of what is now CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’, ‘stock’ or whatever you want to call it. It was during this period that many of the guitars originating from the early 1960s guitars were secured. Thank heaven for that – I certainly couldn’t afford to buy them now. Likewise, none of the CRAVE Guitars’ fold can be classified as collector-grade instruments; I couldn’t (and still can’t) fund that level of quality.

It was about to turn into a realistic alternative to ‘working for the man’ when… two really, really bad things happened. The first was the global recession – the worst economic downturn in living memory. Completely oblivious to the impending financial crisis, I had been buying vintage guitars just as prices were reaching their peak. Bad idea! At the end of 2008, the bubble well and truly burst. The crash practically wiped out all hope of any sort of business start-up, asset management or return on investment. Market values for vintage guitars, arguably a discretionary ‘luxury’ good, plummeted pretty much overnight and are only now, albeit inconsistently, beginning to increase to or above 2008 levels. The second was a personal catastrophe of monumental proportions, from which I still haven’t recovered. I won’t go into detail but it was so profound and fundamental that it almost ended everything. Any idea of CRAVE Guitars becoming a viable business entity was firmly put on ice for another decade. Best laid plans, eh?

2010s:

The consequence of these coincidental calamities meant that the majority of guitars had to go into safe storage. Some didn’t make it to sanctuary and the rest had to be sold off. That early part of the decade was the worst time of my life. I never, ever want to relive or repeat that bleak period. My dreams were well and truly cast into the wilderness. Graffiti art credit: Banksy.

However, either by delusion or resilience, I wasn’t about to give up that easily. By 2014, I began to regain a modicum of, albeit wavering, hope and control. Guitar buying resumed modestly in 2014 after a 5-6-year break. In addition, the scope expanded into vintage amps and analogue effect pedals to complement the guitars. At first, the emphasis was, and to some extent still is, on affordability. CRAVE also started looking at some other important American brands beyond just Fender and Gibson, for instance, Danelectro, Epiphone, Gretsch, Guild, Ovation, Rickenbacker, Silvertone, etc.

Late 2014 and early 2015 saw the building of the CRAVE Guitars’ web site and its social media content. The name remained the same but a more visual approach was required, including some form of coherent brand identity to go with the moniker. The first ‘proper’ CRAVE logo came from experimentation with the name, several pieces of paper and a fat marker pen. It was coincidental that the letters could conveniently form a stylised outline of a Les Paul. Sorted! This crude attempt was then worked up to something a bit more presentable. A professional graphic designer friend doesn’t like my amateur attempts but I think it works well for the ‘brand’. One day, I would like it properly designed but keeping the spirit of the original. NB. Fun insight folks – the intentional ‘bumpiness’ of the lines making up the logo is intended to convey an impression of musical resonance and vibration.

Crave Guitars Logo 2014
CRAVE Guitars Logo 2015 to-date

Where we are today:

That pretty much brings the story up-to-date. The recent sell‑off of non-vintage and non-American gear, as a result of the relocation was an opportunity to refine the model further. The move is intended to provide a more stable basis on which to explore and build opportunity, everything being relative of course. While I consider it no mean achievement that CRAVE Guitars is still here at all, the last 10 years doesn’t demonstrate a great deal of success. I am not happy with the status quo (no not the band), so something has to change.

The baseline position at the time of writing is that CRAVE Guitars comprises a personal ‘assemblage’ of almost 50 guitars (95% of which are vintage), a small handful of vintage amps and over 30 vintage analogue effect pedals. The period covered (other than the 2 modern Gibsons), ranges from the late 1950s to the late 1980s.

→ See full list of featured instruments

→ See full list of featured effect pedals

→ See full list of featured amps

CRAVE Guitars’ 10th Anniversary:

To mark the 10th anniversary of CRAVE Guitars, I did something impulsive and appropriately retrospective. My first ‘serious’ guitar in the 1970s was a 1978 Fender Mustang in natural finish with a rosewood fingerboard. Within a year, I traded up to a ‘real’ 1977 Fender Stratocaster hardtail, a decision that I have long-regretted – not because the Strat is bad or the Mustang good – they were just different. In hindsight, I should have found a way to keep the Mustang.

To signify the events past and present, I paid way, way over market value on a very nice example of that same model Mustang. I did this purely for sentimental reasons and, like the Ovation Breadwinner mentioned in last month’s article, it will probably never turn a profit but, frankly, that wasn’t the point. In some way, it provides a fitting commemoration for the almost 40-year journey from the 1970s to now.

1978 Fender Mustang

→ See feature article on the 1978 Fender Mustang

What next for CRAVE Guitars?:

Well… now this is the BIG question and one that I am struggling with. I am not sure that I’ve learnt a great deal over the past 10 years to inform the future (other than desperate attempts at survival). What direction does CRAVE Guitars take and what happens to it from here? Now the relocation has taken place, it seems opportune to do some thinking and planning. The options appear fairly limited, including:

Do nothing – This is not a particularly satisfactory option. I like playing guitar but so what – is that really enough to warrant so many classic instruments? It certainly doesn’t do the guitars, effects and amps justice.

Establish a Private Collection – I don’t see my role as a collector, so it isn’t really a private guitar ‘collection’ per se. In any case, while collectable, these aren’t really investment-grade guitars. The guitars have precious little historical provenance to add value. As a matter of principle, I hate the idea of hording them away.

Form a business – CRAVE Guitars is not a business (at the moment). These are my babies and selling them as a dealer just isn’t me. Apart from that, I don’t have the ‘killer instinct’ to make it a viable, profitable business concern. Put simply, I’m rubbish at selling. There are also plenty of people in the country with better skills, experience and knowledge than I possess. I also don’t have the resources and I don’t have the appetite for fierce competition in a ruthless commercial (and volatile) vintage guitar market. I also don’t have the space to grow ‘it’ any further, so there is a finite limit to its size.

Exhibit the heritage – CRAVE Guitars doesn’t have sufficient historical merit, scope or scale to warrant establishing any sort of guitar museum and, let’s be honest, there has to be something really special to attract sufficient numbers. America has the ‘National Guitar Museum’, which is a travelling exhibition based in Florida and ‘Songbirds Guitar Museum’ in Tennessee. Sweden has ‘Guitar – The Museum’ serving Europe. Online, there is ‘Guitar Museum’, which is a sparsely populated webspace, so it exists only in a virtual way. The major manufacturers and major artists have museums but these aren’t the same thing. There are plenty of online resources (including CRAVE Guitars’) but it is very diverse and dispersed in nature.

As an observation, it seems incredible (scandalous?) to me that the UK does not have a local, regional or national institution protecting the country’s heritage and its enduring association with the guitar. WTF? There is clearly an opening here but it is probably way beyond my means and capacity. On the downside, there is something about passively cocooning guitars in glass cases that is an anathema to me. Guitars are meant to be played and heard but that ultimately that conflicts with the need for conservation. Alternatively, I believe that CRAVE Guitars’ instruments reflect sufficient heritage that their delights should be shared in some way (but not physically before I get inundated with offers to take them off my hands. Donations are, though, gratefully received).

Put them in storage – Heck, dire circumstances and the relocation dictate that some are still and will have to be in storage for the time being (which I also hate). It is my aim to provide safe, secure, environmentally appropriate space in which to keep them and have ready access to them so they can be used as the makers intended.

Sell the assets off and do something else instead – NOT happening! Period!

Any other ideas – ‘Answers on a postcard’ please to: info@craveguitars.co.uk. Any sensible advice greatly received.

What is my reaction to these options? I would prefer to explore what heritage conservation might mean, although I would need to find a way in which the ‘exhibits’ would be used, rather than locked away in cabinets in the traditional museum-like way. I would like to ‘rescue’ vintage instruments and ensure that they have a safe long-term future. To be honest and realistic, I really don’t think that this option is likely or possible, so it may have to become a commercial operation and I’ll have to learn how to detach myself from the labour of love that it’s been to-date. I’d also have to harden myself to the practical realities of creating and running a trading business. The lack of capital funding means that a physical location (i.e. a shop) is out of the question, so it would have to be a gradual conversion to some sort of virtual operation, probably building on what’s already in place. A great deal will depend on personal circumstances and, perhaps the blindingly obvious… money. Partnership may be an option and one that I haven’t really explored up to now.

Well that’s it for now. It took a considerable while to get here. It will be interesting to see what transpires from here on in. I wonder if CRAVE Guitars will exist long enough to reach its next decennary (and, yes, it is a genuine word, albeit an archaic one not in common use) in 2027. I hope you’ll accompany CRAVE Guitars through its next evolutionary step, whatever it may be.

In the meantime, I feel that it’s time to give that little old 1978 Fender Mustang a little TLC while singing “happy birthday”. I have a feeling that once it’s shipshape, it might well become a go-to guitar. I also hope to get back to doing some serious practising and playing. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “How on Earth do you get recognised for being an unrecognised genius?”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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March 2016 – A Temporary Change Of Direction

posted in: News, Opinion | 0

A couple of months (and posts) ago, I mused on the other key elements of a guitarist’s arsenal, amplifiers and effects. While often regarded as 2nd class citizens of the vintage signal chain, they are, however, both essential items as well as intensely personal in terms of shaping musicians’ individual sound signatures. Being fortunate enough to have a number of Cool & Rare Vintage Electric Guitars, it made some sense to explore these other gems that contributed to modern music as we know it.

The first step was to ditch modern transistor amps and acquire a solid, reliable (but small) vintage amp. The early ’70s Music Man 210 ‘sixty five’ (click here to see the amp feature…) designed by Leo Fender was the first of these, and what a great addition this was.

Then, because of a recent change in personal circumstances, I took a strategic decision to stop looking at the pricier (for me) end of the market and start re-exploring the landscape of vintage effect pedals. I have a number of original ’70s Electro-Harmonix (EHX) American stomp boxes, although these are (sadly) in storage at the moment. I also have a range of modern BOSS and Line 6 pedals which, when I started thinking about it, just didn’t get me excited. Don’t get me wrong, they are great pieces of electronics. However, they didn’t inspire my playing in the way I thought they should. So… unless there isn’t a vintage equivalent, I think that they are now going to have to go the same way as modern amps. My first dalliance with vintage effects has resulted in a number of interesting little effect pedals. I have to say that this may be dangerous territory and I might be opening another Pandora’s Box of addiction for me.

The first area to explore was the sonic continuum from compression to add clean sustain at one end to absurdly dirty fuzz at the other extreme. As far as effect pedals are concerned, the top Japanese brands like BOSS and Ibanez deserve as much respect as their American counterparts like EHX and MXR. I therefore make little distinction, as long as they are both vintage and classic (and good!). Recent additions include (in order from serenely subtle, through sensuously sublime, to seriously psychotic):

  • 1980 MXR Dyna Comp Compressor
  • 1980 BOSS CS-1 Compression Sustainer
  • 1980 BOSS OD-1 Over Drive
  • 1988 Pro Co Rat Distortion
  • 1978 Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff π (fuzz)
Vintage Effects x 5

I won’t repeat myself here, other than to say these diminutive boxes provide an infinite range of tonal possibilities (Click here to see features on all these classic pedals…). This is just the start. Over the next few months, I will try to add to the above and also, hopefully, retrieve my original EHX pedals. I have also started looking at the other families of effects, the time delay-based warbles of phasers, choruses, flangers and echoes, as well as other oddball sound manglers such as envelope followers, ring modulators and pitch shifters. When I started looking, I couldn’t believe the prices of some vintage pedals, original Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamers for instance or Roland Space Echoes (OK, the latter is strictly not a pedal but you know what I mean). Even battered and beaten examples can go for eye-watering sums. I am just (re-)learning all about this stuff, so it will take a time to get re-acquainted with the nuances.

By the way, I haven’t completely resisted the temptation of vintage guitars. I have been ‘naughty’ and continued to dabble in my 6-string obsession with some diverse acquisitions. I hope to be reprising these in another ‘What’s New at CRAVE Gutiars’ post soon. Generally speaking though, guitars will have to take a back seat for a while, so I may go on about ‘Amplifiers and Effects’ for a while yet. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Music doesn’t provide answers to life’s complications but it does provide solace for the soul when the questions are asked.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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January 2016 – The Guitarist’s Friends: Amplifiers and Effects

posted in: Opinion | 0

Most of my previous articles have focused on the venerable (electric) guitar – the source of the electrical signal that becomes music. This month, while there is probably a bit of ‘preaching to the converted’, it is perhaps worth reflecting for a moment and going back to basics.

As may be blindingly obvious, the instrument itself is only one part of the equation when making amplified music. On its own, unplugged, an electric guitar would be no good in front of a big audience. As we all know, electric guitars are dependent on some sort of amplification to convert the low-level signal from the guitar’s pickups to the speakers. Losing your amp mid-gig can be embarrassing and not great for your reputation. Even an acoustic guitar needs to be amplified in order to engage a modest sized audience and there is a whole industry now built around dedicated acoustic guitar amplifiers. This isn’t really my thang, so I won’t pontificate on what I don’t understand.

The oft-forgotten component in this signal chain after the instrument is the venerable lead. I express no opinion on this essential piece of kit other than to say that good quality interconnects are vital. If you use RF transceivers, the same principle applies. These items are integral to your overall sound and it is generally worth every penny to preserve your and your guitar’s inherent musical characteristics. They may not be shiny or ‘sexy’ but scrimp on them at your peril.

Then we get onto one’s amplifier of choice. These can be anything from a diminutive, battery powered box to an impressive backline of Marshall stacks turned up to 11. It’s amazing to think that the venerable Marshall stack was 50 years old in 2015. The advent of home recording has led to an explosion in digital modelling and even the use of the iPhone/iPad can bestow tone-enhancing functions beyond the dreams of many recording pioneers. The Line 6 Pod brought about a revolution in digital amp modelling, embraced by many musicians who could see the potential opportunities of technology. Interestingly, rather than create something unique and innovative all of its own, the digital world has gone to enormous lengths to simulate the soundscape of our favourite vintage valve amps and cabinets, perhaps suggesting that those pioneers got something right in the first place.

So… what’s your favourite sounding amp? And, before you start, yes they do have a sound of their own, irrespective of what’s played through them. Fundamentally, it’s down to individual taste. Personally, I tend to favour the ‘American sound’, such as the classic Fender amps, rather than the stalwarts from this side of the Atlantic, typified by Marshall, Vox and Orange. Gibson, surprisingly, has never been as commercially successful at making guitar amplifiers, leaving opportunities for other US makers such as Mesa/Boogie and Peavey. How about some other classic names from the past, such as WEM, H/H, Roland, Laney, Sound City and Hiwatt, amongst others – some still going while others are history. The differences between the various brands are, unsurprisingly, manifold. Nowadays there is a plethora of amps ranging from the far eastern mass-produced to the US and UK boutique builders. Ultimately, it is down to individual taste and, perhaps, what guitar you play. For info, I currently use a vintage Music Man (click here to see the amp feature…) and a modern Cornford Carrera combining the best of US and UK heritage. It is with much sadness that neither are still in production. I recently purchased the wonderful mid-70s vintage Music Man 210 ‘sixty-five’ amp to use as my main amp of choice. This means that some tranny practice and studio gear may have to become ex-loved CRAVE items soon.

Over time, there have evolved recognised and well-accepted guitar/amp pairings, such as the humbucker equipped Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amp, or the single coil loaded Fender Stratocaster through a Fender amp. However, there are now so many different permutations that provide limitless possibilities for creating one’s own personal signature sound. Why so many guitarists strive to recreate the sound (and style) of others rather than seek a unique, individual signature of their own is probably best left for another debate. For practicality, modern valve amps are safe, reliable and sound great, while digital alternatives give a very good impression of many classics that, let’s face it, most of us will never get to play (let alone own) for real, so let’s not get too snooty. Whether you go for a traditional approach or you adopt a mix-and-match attitude to differentiate your sound, you can experiment to your heart’s content. There is no right or wrong, just what inspires your creativity. That’s the joy of our beloved hobby.

Then, in addition to amplification, there is an abundance of effects units (a.k.a. FX, stompboxes, pedals, etc.) from the mass-manufactured giants to the tiny custom-built independents. The choice is plentiful. The history of stompboxes really started in the 1960s with the fuzz and wah-wah, and has flourished ever since. Now, you can create almost any live or studio sound that you want, from subtle enhancement to unrecognisable noise sculpting. Take your pick between analogue, digital or hybrid, whatever takes your fancy. Personally, I have a soft spot for 1970’s lush vintage analogue Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, such as the Big Muff Pi, Memory Man and Electric Mistress. For modern effects, I generally use Boss and Line 6 units. So much choice, so many opportunities, so little time to experiment. One could spend a lifetime exploring the creative tonal capabilities of effects alone without ever really listening to what the guitar itself can do. Again, it is worth investing in quality leads and power supplies to avoid degrading the magic of your performance.

One characteristic I’ve noticed is the traditionalism that extends from guitars to amps and effects. Many of today’s designs are either copies of, or are heavily influenced by, the past, for example emulating the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer, Dunlop Fuzz Face/Cry Baby or MXR Phase 90. Occasionally, there is genuine innovation; the Digitech Whammy pedal or Roland Loop Station spring to mind? I wait in anticipation for the ‘next big thing’ to challenge our usually conservative prejudices. In the meantime, there is a growing interest in acquiring vintage amps and effects to add to instruments and therefore (re)create the original setups heard on iconic stages and in countless studios for what seems a lifetime of great music, effectively reconstructing the soundtrack of our lives for new audiences. A subject for a future article.

CRAVE guitars are frequently played unamplified to get a feel for the way they resonate and respond to touch without any electronics. Other times, when the mood takes, it is fun just to pile on ridiculous amounts of modification and enjoy the sonic chaos created by rampant knob‑twiddling. Isn’t the electric guitar a wonderful thing, especially when allied to your favourite sound enhancing electronics? Where would we be without them all? Enjoy. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Learn from other musicians; don’t copy them or the best you’ll ever be is an average plagiarist”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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